Doing several things poorly.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking refers to either the ability to pay attention to several pieces of information at the same time or the process of performing more than one task at the same time.

Can learners multitask?

In short, no. Multitasking is a misnomer, because what learners actually do is task-switch very quickly between tasks, while focusing their conscious attention on only one task. Depending on the type of tasks attempted and the level of automation of one of the tasks, learners – and faculty – may believe they can multitask.

Working memory has limits to how much information it can process (see Memory and Learning). While working memory creates a bottleneck for learning, there are two mechanisms that free up working memory and allow us to achieve much higher levels of cognition:

  • Automaticity
    Working memory is freed after we have practiced tasks until they become unconscious or automated. Examples include playing music, driving in calm conditions, or chewing gum while walking.
  • Chunking
    Working memory is freed up when individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole, referred to as a chunk. For example, the concepts of pollution, liberty, or Italian cooking are each single chunks even though they are composed of many smaller concepts. These chunks are then processed as individual pieces of information.

Task switching

When people are able to do multiple tasks at once, this is because at least one of their tasks has been automated, not because people are multitasking. Consider the following tasks:

  • Washing dishes while listening to music.
  • Driving in calm conditions while talking to a friend.
  • Reading a book while watching TV.

The first two examples are often easy to do because at least one of the tasks is carried out unconsciously (listening to music). The tasks in the last example cannot be automated because they require the person to make conscious decisions at unpredictable points. In these instances, if a person is attempting to do both tasks at once they are actually switching back and forth quickly between tasks. In the first two examples, one of the tasks may at some point require decisions and task switching will occur as well. For example, if while driving an accident occurs in front of you, you would be unable to continue your conversation because your working memory will be focused on driving to avoid the accident.

Effects of task switching

Task switching is usually an inefficient way to accomplish multiple tasks, and can have negative consequences for both how well the task is done and for the person attempting the task. The following are mainly correlational findings from a broad range of research on the costs of task-switching:

Grades and studying

  • Facebook
    When studying and using Facebook users report lower GPA; 74.3% said it impacts their grades, yet they still use it anyway (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010)
  • Instant Messaging
    More than half of respondents report a detrimental effect on schoolwork when also using instant messaging (Junco & Cotton, 2011).
  • Homework
    Students reported that doing homework while trying to multitask took significantly longer; had lower GPA scores; and learned less (Bowman et al., 2010; Rosen et al., 2013; Pool et al., 2000)
  • Cognitive Challenge
    Learners use less demanding & accurate cognitive strategies when trying to multitask (Hoffman et al., 2013; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014)

Emotional well-being

  • Multitasking is associated with negative well-being, higher depression and anxiety (even after controlling for neuroticism, extroversion, and overall media use), and higher socio-emotional difficulties (Pea et al., 2012; Becker et al., 2013; Cheever et al., 2014; Loh et al., 2014)

Effects on the brain

  • Multitasking is associated with smaller gray matter density in anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is responsible for managing cognitive control. This makes the learner more susceptible to interference from distractions, and worse at task switching (Loh et al., 2014; Ophir et al., 2009)

Processing ability while texting and driving

  • Reaction times at 70mph:
    • 15 extra feet to stop when drunk.
    • 30 extra feet to stop when texting (Austin, 2009).
  • Reaction times overall:
    • 12% worse when drinking.
    • 21% worse when high.
    • 35% worse when texting (Reed & Robins, 2008).

Suggestions for learning

Because of the variety of negative consequences for both the learner and the quality of learning, students should avoid task-switching when learning and studying.

The Pomodoro Technique is one method for teaching students to focus on individual tasks. Students set a timer for 25 minutes and work only on the assigned task. If they feel distracted by a thought or urge, they write the thought down for later and continue with the main task. They then rest for 5 minutes and repeat. This process promotes self-regulation by requiring students to track how much time they put towards a task and making them aware of how often they become distracted while working

Implications for teaching

The main implication for teaching is to create experiences where students do not need to task switch. The two main areas are:

  • Conflicting Content
    It is important to deliver content in a way that does not ask students to do multiple tasks. For example, when presenting a PowerPoint slide, students may need to copy information for their exam, while at the same time you want them to listen and consider what you are saying. The Multimedia Learning page presents examples and solutions for situations like this.
  • Computers in the Classroom
    Because computers offer easy distractions to students, faculty should explicitly design a policy on when computer use in their course is appropriate. Faculty can require use only at specific times for class-related work, and should stipulate clear consequences


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