Category Archives: Multi-tasking

Power of Distraction

A recent piece (US Unplugged) in the Times Higher collects quotes and stories from a number of institutions and individual tutors now discouraging the use of laptops in lectures and social networking on campus.

Some good quotes from Clifford Nass:

“It seemed as though they could actually do two things at once. What do these kids know that I don’t? It drove me crazy. That’s what inspired my research.”

But he found that “they’re not amazing. They can’t really do it.” His research shows that the students’ memories were disorganised; they fixated on irrelevant data, could not follow specific directions that required paying attention and wrote poorly.

… “We’ve reached a period where attention is no longer valued. There’s been a cultural change where we’ve forgotten about the idea of paying attention,” he says. “And people have started to resent that.”

I haven’t banned laptops from my own lectures – indeed, only small numbers of students bring laptops to lectures at UWS, so it hasn’t really been a major issue. In some classes I’ve given out laptops – but that has been to allow students to do practical work at set points in a class (its hard to teach programming in a lecture). I have this year used mobile phone based response/poll systems in class and that did work well – using the technology to concentrate attention on the task, without allowing it to become a distraction seems to be key.

Sherry Turkle makes a very worthwhile point:

But what professors are learning to say is: ‘You know what? In this class we’re here to be with each other. We’re here to be a community. Let’s make the most of it.’

There are of course two sides to this – lecturers need to do their part to engage students and to try to promote learning – and students need to learn how best to help themselves and understand the negative impacts of partial attention.

(See some of the other posts here on multi-tasking for links to other studies)

The ____ Generation

For a moment lets not wonder whether digital native is an appropriate term for today’s youth (or even today’s under 36′s if we go by the cut-off originally proposed by Prensky). Instead, whatever they are, can we find an alternative suitable name for the new generation of youth? Take your pick, the following are all ones I’ve found in literature or popular press in recent days, weeks and months. Sometimes I see several of these in the one day!

The ____ Generation. Insert one of:

Google, iPod, Gamer, MySpace, Nintendo, Now, N, Net, Multi-tasking, Benefits, Facebook.

To help you choose I undertook a *highly* scientific survey of popularity of each. I googled each term, and have ranked them below. Try and order them before you see the results – how many did you get right?

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Multi-tasking impairs performance

Cover article in this week’s New Scientist is on multi-tasking. It cites research rounded up in a paper with the snappy title “Capacity limits of information processing in the brain” from volume 9 of the very respected journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Last year they had another piece about the effect of interruptions during work, which I commented on here.  This latest piece reinforces my belief that multi-tasking is not as great as its cracked up to be – and provides more hard evidence…

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When Students Attempt to Multitask in the Lecture Hall…

Pointed to this article in Chronicle Careers, on the effect of modern distractions in the lecture hall, by yet another post on the Second Life Education Mailing list. For a short article, it covers a lot of ground – and some of the points are quite thought provoking. More below.

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Twitch Speed, part last

With heavy heart, I return to my analysis of the Twitch Speed paper, and begun here and continued here. Originally I thought I’d enjoy this bit, but as I’ve got more involved in the literature, I’ve realised – with help of some of you out there – that I’d much rather just move on. I’ll make this my last post on the seminal paper, and to boot I’ll throw in some comments on “Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning”. Then I’ll return that book to my colleague. And then I’ll finally move on.

The sections I’ll look at this time are Parallel vs. Linear Processing and Random Access vs. Linear Thinking. At first it seems obvious – parallel processing has to be better than linear: being able to deal with multiple strands at once. And old fashioned liner thinking! Who could possibly want that!

I think Prensky made a clever choice of terms here, so I’m going to change the labels for a start. So question: What do you call linear processing combined with linear thinking?

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Multi-tasking makes you stupid

Dug out an old copy of the New Scientist – 24th June 2006 (no. 2557, p46-49). Included a mention of some research from 2005 which showed that dealing with emails and phone calls while working has a greater IQ lowering effect than smoking marijuana. Can read more in this press release from the original report.

The 2006 article (see online article here) is about technology in development which seeks to help reduce interruptions, but also includes some practical advice such as:

If an interruption is likely to take longer than 2 minutes, add it to your to-do list and go back to what you were already doing.

It certainly seems that the current generation of office workers perform worse when they attempt to multi-task.