Can You Learn While Multitasking? The Answer May Surprise You!

About 6 years ago, while briefly watching my high school-age daughter work on an assignment, I observed in real time the assault of technology on learning for the millennial generation. As she wrote her paper, she frequently interrupted her writing to read and respond to text messages on her phone. When she received an alert—which seemed to come every two or three minutes—she’d stop writing her paper, respond to the text, and then resume her work. Rather than scold or admonish her to put the phone away, I wondered if this distracted approach was the new way to work—the new learning norm. After all, she was a straight “A” student at her selective high school at the time. I figured that somehow, as human beings adapted to new media (writing, the printing press, typewriters, word processors, and now smart phones and tablets), perhaps our brains could somehow adapt as well to absorb multiple simultaneous streams of information.

Later, while reading Norman Doidges’, The Brain that Changes Itself, I discovered the concept of neuroplasticity—the notion that the structure and function of our brains can change by forging new neural connections in response to novel experiences, environmental changes or new thoughts. As a believer in Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset,” I know that we can make our brains smarter by exposing our minds to increasingly rigorous work. Neuroplasticity challenged the prevailing beliefs of most of the 20th century that our intelligence was fixed in early childhood. Now, thanks to this new line of study, researchers have discovered that our brains remain “plastic” well into adulthood. New ideas, thoughts, volumes of information and memories are formed because our brain cells –neurons—are making new connections.

Could it be possible, then, that our brains could adapt to multitask more efficiently, thereby enabling us to perhaps learn twice the information in the same amount of time? In other words, by overloading ourselves with information, can humans actually evolve to learn calculus and analyze Chaucer simultaneously? The answer is a resounding NO.

A recent study published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Larry Rosen, a California State University professor of psychology, documented what 263 middle, high school and college students were doing over a 15 minute period as they completed their homework, worked on projects, studied for exams, and read books. The students were also allowed to respond to texts, use email, talk on the phone, and/or watch their Facebook and Twitter feeds while being directed to “study something important.” Two findings stuck out for me.

First, as early as two minutes into the exercise, students began to decline in “on-task behavior.” In other words, it took just two minutes before these middle, high school and college students started to engage with their other devices and activities, drawing their attention away from their schoolwork. Two minute attention spans! Even more troubling was that these subjects were told that they were being observed! (This contrived self-awareness makes me wonder what the true attention span is for students who aren’t being watched.)

More importantly, to my original question about learning, the researchers found that over a 15 minute period, the students only spent 65 percent of the time actually working on their schoolwork.

When we multitask while doing our work, our learning is shallow, spotty, and we make more mistakes because our brains, though an incredibly efficient organ, can only handle one activity requiring higher-order thinking at a time, particularly if both activities are related. Yes, to Dr. Doidge’s argument, we can become smarter, but not while being distracted.

More critically, though, media multitasking inhibits developing deeper understanding that precludes us from applying what we’ve learned to new contexts. After all, we’re not going to school or taking classes to score well on tests. Exams are just a means to an end. The ultimate purpose of learning is to become proficient and transfer what we’ve learned to new and novel contexts. It’s impossible to remember something if we’ve never really learned it. It could explain why Richard Arum and his colleagues tragically found that nearly half of college sophomores showed no gains in their critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing skills after the first two years of college (see Academically Adrift).

In the Rosen study, for every 15 minutes, only two-thirds or about 10 minutes was spent on study. The rest of the time was wasted. My guess is that had the observations been extended to an hour or two, the ratio of homework to wasted time would be worse. (One large survey found that 80 percent of college students admitted to texting during class.) Still, even if the ratio held firm, the Rosen finding suggests that students can buy back as much as a third of their study time by resisting the temptation to check up on friends or respond to alerts while studying. Similar studies suggest that resistors will gain deeper content knowledge and earn better grades. One study in particular found that students who texted and followed Facebook the most also had the lowest college GPA!

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) made popular the phrase, “Don’t Drink and Drive.” Oprah Winfrey has scores of us signing a “No Phone Zone” pledge. Perhaps we need to start a “You Can’t Text and Learn” campaign!

My daughter went on to become a magna cum laude college graduate. At times, she learned to go “off the grid” so she could focus on her schoolwork by suspending her Facebook account for weeks at a time. Perhaps we can take a lesson from her and others who’ve “learned how to learn” by unplugging during a period when focus is necessary. Our “friends” will still be there, chatting and posting away when we reconnect. And when we do, chances are, we may be able to teach them a thing or two.


For more information on the Rosen study, go to