The ready presence of technology and the fast pace of life can make multitasking seem like an efficient way to accomplish the tasks and meet the expectations of life. Yet, multiple research studies have shown that multitasking isn’t really what we do. In fact, we are task switching. Unfortunately, with each task switch we become incrementally less efficient and more prone to make mistakes.
Task switching is particularly harmful to learning. Learning, especially when a concept or skill is complex and challenging, requires sustained focus and concentration. Meanwhile, today’s media-related technology often presents strong competition for the attention of students while engaging in learning acquisition and reinforcement activities. To be clear, passive use of technology such as music in the background does not necessarily interfere with concentration. However, active technology such as texting, posting, and monitoring posts can create significant focus and concentration challenges.
Of course, students may argue that their generation is better able to handle technology related multitasking than their parents’ generation because they have grown up with technology. Certainly, today’s students have been exposed to technology at an earlier age than most adults, but research calls the assertion into question.
A study published in Computers and Human Behavior found that student participants studying while non-learning related technology was present averaged only six minutes of focused study before switching to social media, texting, and other technology associated activities unrelated to their academic task. Yet, we know that the longer students remain focused and engaged during study sessions and other learning activities, the more likely they are to absorb and retain what they are learning.
The most effective strategy for students to counter the tendency for technology-related task switching is to limit or eliminate immediate access to unrelated devices and applications while learning. Reducing the temptation and ease of engaging in task switching can help.
When elimination of non-learning related technology is not possible or practical, we can coach students to schedule periodic “technology breaks” to engage in social media, texting, etc. Committing to focus for a specific length of time followed by a rewarding break can help students to build their attention span and disciplined focus. This approach can also give students opportunities to practice executive functioning activities such as self-discipline and delayed gratification.
In addition, we can coach students to employ conscious study strategies, such as self-quizzes and building concept maps, to increase their focus and concentration and remain on task for longer periods of time. When students focus on what and how they are studying they are better able to resist temptations and avoid becoming distracted by other activities.
Further, we can teach students metacognition strategies such as being conscious of how well they are focusing and how deeply they are concentrating. Metacognitive strategies can be especially helpful to increasing student awareness of the effectiveness of their learning strategies.
Admittedly, learning to resist task switching is no small challenge in today’s world. Yet, if we can help our students to develop effective strategies and skills to overcome the temptation to task switch, we will have given them a valuable, success supporting, lifelong gift.