What to do about the multi-tasking myth

I recently attended the American Accounting Association, Management Accounting Section Conference and was drawn to a number of education stream sessions. One of the topics addressed was multi-tasking.

In the morning the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) highlighted some research on generation Z (those born mod-1990s to mid-2000s). Evidently they believe themselves to be master multi-taskers – no problem for them to take in the nuances of a lecture while using WhatsApp to communicate with friends. Some say the same about millennials.

In the afternoon we heard from Professor Peter Doolittle, an educational psychologist at Virginia Tech. He demonstrated to us that while we could multi-task on two relatively automatic tasks, such as counting up in twos while listening to the US pledge of allegiance, as soon as the tasks required more cognitive effort we were all pretty hopeless. Maybe it was because we in the audience would definitely not be classed as generation Z! But no, his research clearly shows even generation Z and those who perceive themselves as good multi-taskers do no better.

Research also shows we lose efficiency by moving between tasks as we have to spend time re-focusing as we switch. And of course we can be easily distracted by someone sitting next to us who is looking at videos of cute cats doing strange things.

So what to do about those students who sit in class tapping away at their mobile phones and tablets who are not taking notes?

An outright ban was suggested. But as Professor Elaine Harris of Roehampton pointed out overseas students need their IT to help with translation, some special needs are also helped by certain apps and there is always a chance a mobile phone will be needed in an emergency. A ban could be seen as discriminatory.

Other suggestions included:

  • asking those who want to use phones and tablets for non-lecture related activities to sit in the back few rows;
  • building in regular 5 minute ‘media breaks’; and,
  • running an exercise which shows the negative impact of multi-tasking.

What have you found helps counter the negative effects of mobile phone use in the lecture hall?

  • Sometimes encouraging students to use their devices for learning helps to focus their attention on the topic. Some apps I have used in class include Poll Everywhere, Kahoot! along with collaborative tools like Padlet. 

  • That's a very relevant question, Rick. I confess I will sometimes look at my mobile phone during sessions at conferences, sometimes to go online to explore a point or reference from the speaker and sometimes to have a peek at my emails. And then if any are interesting/challenging  then I am distracted. I won't do it if the speaker is riveting though, so that is a thought for those of us who present!    

    Recently I have been at conferences where slido was used and delegates were asked to go on their phones to suggest questions to be asked of a panel. So my supplementary question to those reading this would be, Have you any suggestions for how to use mobile phones in your lectures and presentations to help interact and engage with those attending?

  • An interesting post Rick!

    I think when I started lecturing to student audiences (and it’s only ever been a very occasional part of my job) it was exceptional for someone to be tapping away on something, and the assumption was that they were indeed distracted.

    However over the years, I think I’ve become less concerned and accept that some students are using devices to take notes or record the session (although I wonder if many do actually listen to it all again).

    Perhaps we should be more forgiving of those who actually turn up. It’s the ones who aren’t even there I worry about sometimes!