NSBE - Convention 2018 - 14

WorkingSmarter

Can You Learn While Multitasking?
By Karl W. Reid, Ed.D. NSBE Executive Director

S

ome years ago, while
watching my high schoolaged daughter work on a
school assignment, I noticed that she frequently interrupted her writing to respond
to text messages on her phone.
I wondered whether it was possible that our brains had evolved
to multitask more efficiently, thereby enabling us to learn twice
the information in the same amount of time. In other words,
can aspiring engineers respond to
texts and derive Schrödinger equations
simultaneously?
In nearly all cases, the answer is a
resounding "NO."
A 2013 study by California State
University psychology professor Larry Rosen, titled "Facebook
and Texting Made Me Do It," observed 263 middle school, high
school and college students over a 15-minute period as they
completed their homework, worked on projects, studied for
exams and read books. The students were allowed to respond
to texts, use email, talk on the phone and watch their Facebook
and Twitter feeds while being directed to "study something
important." Two findings stuck out to me.
First, it took just two minutes before these students started to
let their devices and activities distract them from their schoolwork. Two-minute attention spans!
More important, 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!
Later research by cognitive psychologist David Strayer and
others has uncovered a small group of people, about 2.5 percent of the population, who do have the ability to handle more
than one mentally demanding task at once without tripping up.
He calls them "supertaskers."
But as for the mere mortals, the remaining 97.5 percent of
us, multitasking makes our learning shallow and spotty, and we
make more mistakes. Why? Because our brains can only handle
one higher-order thinking activity at a time. Studying engineering
or physics are activities that fall into that category. It's impossible
to remember something if we've never really learned it.
The Rosen study implies that as a learner, you can actually
buy back as much as a third of your study time by resisting the
temptation to check up on friends or respond to text and email
alerts while studying.

We can work smarter by unplugging.
My daughter went on to become a magna cum laude college
graduate. At times, she went "off the grid" to 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
unplugged when focus was necessary. Our "friends" will still be
there when we reconnect, chatting and posting as always. And
when we do reconnect, chances are, we can teach them a thing
or two. ■

"We can work smarter by unplugging."

14 * NSBE MAGAZINE * CONVENTION 2018

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