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Improve your studies by avoiding media multitasking

By Dianna Lloyd | 22 September 2017

It is becoming more popular these days for educators to integrate technological devices into the learning environment, but a growing body of evidence is showing that digital tools and programs might actually hinder student concentration levels. How prevalent is this problem, and can we still achieve optimal learning despite social media and other distractions?

Modern barriers to concentration

construction barriers

Psychology professor Dr. Larry Rosen at California State University-Dominguez Hills led researchers in an observational study of about 300 middle school, high school, and university students in their homes. The students were asked to study “something important” for fifteen minutes, while being observed.

Every minute, researchers noted the students’ activities, whether they were doing actual schoolwork or spending time on devices texting, listening to music, on Facebook, or watching television. Rosen said, “Our goal was to see if students could concentrate for the short 15-minute study period or if they couldn’t focus and attempt to identify the main distracting points.”

The observations of the students are what Rosen calls “startling and sobering.” Rosen’s team found that on average, students of all ages could only stay on task for about three minutes before being distracted, even in the presence of a researcher. The main distractions were information coming in from their smartphones or computers.

In an attempt to clarify their observations, the team then asked about each student’s grades. They found that the students who did better at school were the ones who could stay on task for longer periods of time and those that applied strategies while studying. The students with the lower GPAs consumed more media of all types in a normal day, preferred to work on multiple tasks at the same time, and tended to switch back and forth between them.

“Rosen’s team found that on average, students of all ages could only stay on task for about three minutes before being distracted, even in the presence of a researcher.”

Effects of media multitasking while learning

student sitting on library floor with tablet and laptop

Media multitasking while learning is the act of attending to various streams of information and entertainment while studying, doing homework, or sitting in class. It doesn’t matter if the information is a text, a glance at Facebook, or a song on the radio. The behaviour is becoming common in young people, with many not knowing how to function any other way. Rosen reports, “Young people have a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once.”

This is significant because evidence from psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science suggests students that multitask while doing schoolwork understand less, retain less, and have difficulty applying their learning to new contexts. This becomes a bigger problem when older students who have more freedom to bring their computers, mobile phones, and tablets into class with them will often find themselves distracted when they should be learning.

In a study headed by Associate Professor Barney McCoy at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, researchers found that 80% of college students admit to texting during class. Furthermore, many students said that use of digital devices by other students was a distraction as well. Not surprisingly, more than 91 percent of those surveyed would oppose a ban on digital devices in the classroom regardless of the distractions affecting them.

Your brain is not made for multitasking

man with 'out of order' sign taped to forehead

The true problem with multitasking lies in the way the brain processes information. Complex tasks such as texting, emailing, and posting on Facebook draw on the same mental resources demanded by schoolwork. David Meyer, a psychology professor at University of Michigan, studied the effects of a divided attention on learning. According to him, “Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time”.

“It can only happen when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook – each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

Meyer even goes as far as invalidating the notion that brains which are used to multitasking somehow become more efficient at it and will be able to function better while doing it. “They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

“Young people’s technology use is all about quelling anxiety. They don’t want to miss out.”

Strategies to combat digital distractions

young woman meditating with scrunched up paper in the air

Given that digital distractions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, the best way to deal with them is to learn how to prioritize. Rosen recommends a study strategy of taking “tech breaks.” One to two minutes in length, tech breaks are windows wherein you’re free to use your phone, tablet, or computer. After this point, all technology is turned off. If you’re using a computer for study, make sure that only the necessary programs, applications, and websites are open. Do your work, uninterrupted, for fifteen minutes, and then allow yourself another tech break.

Repeat the process until all assignments, studying, or work is completed. Rosen believes that, over time, students will be able to extend their working time for up to 45 minutes. The key to the strategy is the dangling carrot of an online or digital reward. “Young people’s technology use is all about quelling anxiety. They don’t want to miss out.” Rosen believes that device checking is a compulsive behaviour that people can learn to control.

Being productive doesn’t necessarily mean throwing your computer out or downgrading your mobile phone. It’s just a matter of keeping your screen dark, your browser tabs closed, and your handheld devices on silent as you work or study.

During your next tech break, check out our other tips to help you make the most of your study time.

Or perhaps you need more assistance in setting up the perfect study space.

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