Multitasking Undermines Deep and Sustained Learning, Research Shows

Do your kids say they can do homework, send text messages, update Facebook and watch TV at the same time? They can’t. Their brains—like yours—can only do one thing at a time.

Multitasking Undermines Deep and Sustained Learning, Research Shows

Dividing the brain’s attention between two or more mental tasks exacts costs in both performance and time, according to research.

There are some activities we can do two or three at a time: cook dinner and listen to music, iron shirts and talk on the phone, nurse the baby and read a book. But when it comes to mental activities that require focus or thought, we humans are only capable of “serial attention.” When mental attentiveness is required, we are actually “singletaskers,” not multitaskers, and there is no changing the way our brains are fundamentally structured.

The Cost of Dividing the Brain’s Attention

Often, adults and children perceive themselves to be capable multitaskers, especially when managing various digital environments, but the research tells us otherwise: multitaskers are invariably less competent, less efficient, less accurate, less able to manage complexity, and less able to recall the content of what they have been doing compared to individuals who focus on one task at a time. Dividing the brain’s attention between two or more mental tasks exacts costs in both performance and time.

Multitasking is actually rapidly switching from one task to another rather than simultaneously performing two mental tasks. While we may be able to walk and talk at the same time, we cannot recite a poem and complete a math problem at the same time.  And every time our children shift their attention—from homework to Facebook to the television screen to the BBM thread and back to the calculus problems—the time it takes to complete a single task increases and the level of performance decreases. Students who multitask as they do homework produce inferior work in terms of both comprehension and accuracy.

Why Singletasking Is Better for Students

Further, their tendency to rapidly toggle between several tasks undermines the development of a child’s ability to focus and pay attention for extended periods of time. The more kids juggle their mental time, the less able they are to stay still and concentrate when extended mental effort is required: reading a book, composing a research paper, writing tests and exams.

Complex texts require singletasking, as Mark Bauerlein, Emory University English professor, puts it: the capacity for uninterrupted thinking. Slow, deliberate reading is the antithesis of the fragmented multitasking that most students engage in on a daily—and nightly—basis. One of the strong draws is that multitasking feels good: the mind craves the “high” of continuous, excessive stimulation. And, as Sherry Turkle has discovered in her technology studies, “the high deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive. In search of the high, they want to do even more.”

Jordan Grafman, chief of Cognitive Neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, points out that the dominant learning routine is going to play an enormous role in how kids’ brains develop and what kinds of learning strategies they store. If they are constantly toggling between homework, instant messaging and online videos, they may get really good at toggling. But that does not equate to being good at deep and sustained learning.

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Do you agree with research that found multitasking can be harmful to learning and productivity? How do you strike a balance with needing to do more under time constraints? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.


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