Multitaskings Impact on Study & Homework: The Myth Exposed


Ever checked to see if your student is doing their homework only to find them listening to music, chatting on their phone, checking their social media sites and doing their homework at the same time? Have you wondered if this is really effective?  Multitasking is generally a reality that most teens have grown up with and have seen from the media, parents and peers. However, does it mean multitasking is productive? Are that they are doing a number of tasks badly or are they actually being more efficient? The answer to this question depends largely on the individual learner and the kind of tasks they are performing.

The average student spends about seven hours a day using electronic devices and 58% say they multitask while doing homework. Studies are ongoing as to what the influence of multitasking and electronic devices will have on cognitive and social development, but there are very practical ways to measure whether multitasking has a positive or negative effect on your student’s ability to study or do their homework.

A Stanford University study found that when students switch from one task to another, it negatively affects their ability to think critically or evaluate. Multitasking students were hampered when trying to discern which information was vital and they had to reorient themselves whenever they went back to a task which actually wasted more time than multitasking saved. Other findings from researchers at Stanford include: it impairs your cognitive controlmay harm the social and emotional development of tweenage girls, and a reduction in ability to filtering irrelevant information from relevant to name a few.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 47% of students who spent more than 16 hours a day multitasking received lower grades (lower C’s) than students who spent less time on electronic devices. While these examples are extreme, there is evidence that the brain really isn’t very good at juggling more than one or two tasks at a time. Professor Earl Miller, an MIT neuroscientist, scanned volunteer’s brains as they multitasked and found that only one or two of the visual stimulants could activate the brain at any one given time.

This is especially true when we try to perform two tasks that use the same areas of the brain. For example if you are trying to send a tweet while writing an essay, your brain becomes overloaded and simply slows down.

Not all multitasking is bad. Some studies have shown that playing instrumental or classic music quietly in the background can actually improve concentration and higher cognitive functioning while having a number of sources of information open can help reduce the amount of time students spend on research. If multitasking of this nature is limited to two separate tasks that require different parts of the brain, then it may be successfully accomplished.

Despite a few studies that show the possible potential to learn to multitask to some degree most suggest it is a wasted effort especially when the tasks were not related. A recent study by Junco & Cotten (2012) on the effects of multitasking on academic performance found that using Facebook and text messaging while studying were negatively related to student grades, while online searching and emailing were not. This sounds reasonable since the searching and emailing was probably related to the task at hand while the texting and FB’ing were probably just social functions that distracted the subject.

Test this out for yourself! Conduct practical tests to see how your student fares when multitasking. Set out a number of similar tasks like multiple choice science questions or math problems. Get your student to do half of them while multitasking and the other half while focusing on the task at hand. Compare accuracy and time taken to establish what works best for them. My personal experience in the workplace has been that multitaskers are less productive and hinder group performance. All to often we had a group of ‘rock-star’ programers, marketers and computer software developers attending a meeting and texting and IM’ing. Needless to say the project they were hired to do failed and they wasted a load of our time and money. Now we have a rule of NO ‘multitasking’ during meetings.

I tend to agree with Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell who has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” As a parent you can help your child by limiting the number of distractions your students have and try to encourage them to concentrate on one task at a time when they are studying or doing their homework.

An article in Forbes seems to sum up the matter nicely. In the article author Douglas Merrill states

I’m often asked if this is a generational phenomenon. Specifically, “everyone knows kids are better at multitasking.”  The problem? “Everyone” is wrong. Their brains, especially the limits imposed by short term memory, are the same as those of adults. Even though your kid boasts she can watch TV and study simultaneously, don’t believe her. If nothing else, learning to concentrate is a skill that will serve her not only with geography exam but also with life.

Nova has a very nice show on multitasking that you might want to watch. Perhaps you can watch while you are doing the laundry and texting a friend?

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Filed under Improved Learning, Organization, Parenting

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