Please pay attention! – teaching in an age of “multitasking” students

In my years of teaching Web Development courses, I was increasingly plagued by students trying to keep up with social networking sites, instant messaging, email, etc., during class time.  Because of the nature of my courses my students were always sitting at Internet-connected computers so my problems started before the days of wireless access and students’ omnipresent laptops and web-enabled cell phones.

One of my teaching colleagues once asked whether I thought that we older people had Windows 3.11  brains while kids were growing up with Windows NT brains.  All I could say was that I know that I have a one-track thought process if I really want to learn something.  He agreed and we marveled at our students seeming ability to do everything at once.

Now there is some current research that questions whether multitasking is really as “efficient” as its proponents would have us believe.

I am very glad that my computer can multitask (Windows NT was a huge improvement for me, and now my  iMac is really fantastic at doing lots of things at once), but I am happy to learn that perhaps it is not necessary for me to try to do the same thing!

Below I quote an interesting article on this subject from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Scholars Turn Their Attention to Attention

In an age of classroom multitasking, scholars probe the nature of learning and memory – January 31, 2010
By David Glenn

Imagine that driving across town, you’ve fallen into a reverie, meditating on lost loves or calculating your next tax payments. You’re so distracted that you rear-end the car in front of you at 10 miles an hour. You probably think: Damn. My fault. My mind just wasn’t there.

By contrast, imagine that you drive across town in a state of mild exhilaration, multitasking on your way to a sales meeting. You’re drinking coffee and talking to your boss on a cellphone, practicing your pitch. You cause an identical accident. You’ve heard all the warnings about cellphones and driving—but on a gut level, this wreck might bewilder you in a way that the first scenario didn’t. Wasn’t I operating at peak alertness just then? Your brain had been aroused to perform several tasks, and you had an illusory sense that you must be performing them well.

That illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom. Students’ minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.

“Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities,” says Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. “But there’s evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people.”

Read complete article: Scholars Turn Their Attention to Attention – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

3 Replies to “Please pay attention! – teaching in an age of “multitasking” students”

  1. Interesting short-read, Ruth. As a former student of yours (and a former co-worker) I can tell you that I fall in the multi-tasking category for sure. It varies based on the day and the tasks I have to complete, but I always have MS Outlook open to stay on top of those “important” messages, while working in Lectora, Captivate, and other various programs. All work-related, and a productive use of all the time, but it is just the way I tend to keep myself engaged in the work day and forget about the things I have to do or worry about in my personal life. For some reason if I try to focus on one project all day long – I feel much less productive.

    1. Melissa,
      I was actually thinking of you as an exception when I wrote this post. You were unique among my students at that time! While enthusiastically embracing the new Web 2.0 social networking tools, you retained your ability to organize and prioritize tasks at hand –and to focus in on a specific task when needed. I must admit that I also kept my email running (and IM with Ucompass) while I was working on a new syllabus or a task like that, but I would never have thought of checking email while teaching a class or when I was trying to figure out a new, elusive function of Dreamweaver. So perhaps it is more the lack of organization and prioritization that is the real problem – not the multitasking itself. In any case, you were a great student and later on a great co-worker!

  2. No kidding. I work as a time management coach and many of my clients think I’ll teach them how to multitask better. They’re quite surprised when I tell them they need to multitask less. It’s amazing how much more productive people can become when they just sit down an focus on *one* thing.

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