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How Can You Help a Multitasker Focus? Education Strategies for Digital Natives

I ran across an interesting item today by   about how today’s “students can’t resist multitasking, and it’s impairing their memory.” The entire article is worth reading, here’s a taste of the conclusions:

Young people think they can perform two challenging tasks at once, Meyer acknowledges, but “they are deluded,” he declares. It’s difficult for anyone to properly evaluate how well his or her own mental processes are operating, he points out, because most of these processes are unconscious. And, Meyer adds, “there’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking. 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.”

In thinking about my own teaching strategies, I realized I’ve been using multiple methods to channel multi-taskers and help them maintain focus.

For Assignments

  • I have students prepare a short summary of assigned reading. This helps students maintain attention in small manageable pieces while promoting active reading.
  • In other writing assignments, I provide students with a detailed outline with what is expected in each section. Although there is no question that writing a research paper from beginning to end is a valuable skill, that’s not the focus of my courses. More importantly, I view this scaffolding as an appropriate way to help students develop those skill.

During Class

  • Every class involves a variety of activities (e.g., listening, talking, watching, reading, writing, thinking, and doing). I mostly teach courses that meet one day a week in the evening. The time goes by more quickly when there’s a variety of tasks and experiences.
  • Changing up a student’s cognitive load with some moments demanding high concentration (like a 5-minute quiz) and others providing down time (like pauses between student presentations) increases stamina.
  • I frequently invite guest speakers. Meeting a new person activates social energies, one of the frequent causes of interruption. Also, like teens visiting a friends house, students tend to be on their best behavior when there’s a guest at class.
  • To help channel student multi-tasking tendencies, I invite them to live-tweet guest speaker visits. This has an extra benefit of providing a permanent record of the event with valuable feedback to the speaker.
  • Just about every class I have students do “break-out” where they discuss a topic in groups of 2-4 students. Each group then reports back out to the class, providing a structured discussion of the topic. There’s no hiding in a small group, making it harder to attempt to multi-task. Also, students naturally tend to compare their own responses to other groups, so that’s also an engaging activity.

Of course, the best way to minimize the disruptions of multi-tasking is to train ourselves to focus. Here’s helpful advice from Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills:

This ability to resist the lure of technology can be consciously cultivated, Rosen maintains. He advises students to take “tech breaks” to satisfy their cravings for electronic communication: After they’ve labored on their schoolwork uninterrupted for 15 minutes, they can allow themselves two minutes to text, check websites, and post to their hearts’ content. Then the devices get turned off for another 15 minutes of academics.

What’s your strategy for avoiding the pitfalls of multi-tasking? Have you found anything in classroom settings that is particularly helpful?

Image credit: Steven L. Johnson

5 Responses to How Can You Help a Multitasker Focus? Education Strategies for Digital Natives

  • I remember when I was in college as often as possible if the weather was good professors would try to have the class meet outside. I think being outdoors breaks up the desire to be online somewhat, but that was then. Now, the college kids that I’ve seen today seem like zombies! They walk around texting constantly not even paying attention to where they are going. Blind people are more careful about their surroundings than some of these kids with a cell phone in their hand! I know it’s ridiculous to say this because I’m sure that my dad said the same thing about my generation, but I have to say it. I thought I was spoiled, but sometimes these kids today seem barely conscious! Sometimes they almost appear to be in a catatonic state! I know this sounds extreme, but I honestly believe to some extent cell phones are shutting down their brains. Because of my physical disability, it took me an incredibly long time to finish my graduate work. I spent 17 years at the University of Georgia. In 1999 almost no students had cell phones. When they came back in the fall of 2000, almost all the undergraduates had cell phones, and I noticed a marked change in their behavior. If I sat next to one of them in the cafeteria, before cell phones, people would always sit down, and talk to me, but immediately after the introduction of cell phones that all changed. People no longer talk to me in the cafeteria anymore. They just pulled out their cell phones and started talking to their friends on them. Particularly, in Georgia, where people are traditionally friendly, there was a big change in people’s behavior when they started using cell phones. Strangers no longer acknowledged me on the street, or in the elevator as is traditional in the South. They are now so busy looking at their cell phones, they hardly notice that anyone else exists! I know probably no one else agrees with me, but I think it’s possible that cell phones are destroying the social fabric of our society!

  • I fell for the multi-tasking delusion for some time, and in the past few years I realized it was all mostly inaccurate. So for myself, I try to focus on one task for at least 25 – 30 minutes before I switch, but if I can spend 2 hours straight on one thing, even better. But when I’m doing that one thing, I’m not trying to also learn a language on a CD for example. You have to focus and try working in a single task oriented system. I keep a good to-do list to stay in point. I think something that helps a lot with becoming more focused is to use a calendar to schedule things to do, appointments and notes. This “unclutteres” your mind and memory and after you train yourself to do this, you tend to be more focused as your mind can “let that go” since you wrote it down. I think that helps me too.

  • Interesting points Michael. About the only thing I might add to that is I see plenty of non-students on campus who are also more interested in a device (or just plain old dumb cell phone) than they are in paying attention to surroundings.

  • I agree Oscar. I’ll sometime set a timer for 30 minutes to force myself to focus on a single task for at least that long. I usually find once I’ve gotten going for that long I can last much longer.

  • Dang I wish you had been one of my teachers back in the day! Some of my 3 hour classes were so dull we had to use toothpicks to keep our eyes open.