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

Skip to toolbar