A Columbia University student, on the laptop in the classroom.

Take, for example, an instance of tweeting while listening to a lecture: It’s tempting to think that we can divide our attention between a professor’s analysis of the Cold War and a clever 140 characters, but it would be more accurate to think of this as a series of micro-episodes, as we alternate brief bursts of attention between the two possible stimuli to which we may attend. Each one is a distraction that impedes our performance on the primary task.

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6 Responses to “The Truth about Multitasking”

  1. Jack/OH Says:

    I’ll defer to UD and other profs on the influence of all this electronic stuff on learning, professor-pupil relations, etc.

    I admit I hop onto the computer with the same zeal I used to crack a world almanac when I was a youngster. Lots of disparate info about everything. Pleasurable scanning. I’m not sure I was learning, in the sense of exploring new and unfamiliar patterns of thought (calculus, English lit, etc.). More like cataloging.

    FWIW, I attended a local civic meeting a while back where a handful of people I knew slightly immediately opened their laptops. Trust me–they were doing nothing of consequence with those laptops, their apps, and what-not.

  2. Mr Punch Says:

    The main issue here is that some things demand close attention, and some don’t. It’s perfectly possible to use a computer in various ways while watching just about any TV show, including the news, and especially sports. But it turns out that listening to a lecture, much less actually participating in a class, isn’t much like watching TV. I suspect that this is true even when the lecture/class is on a screen.

  3. david foster Says:

    Some activities inherently require multitasking…for example, a pilot may be talking to an air traffic controller, adjusting the engine mixture, scanning for traffic, and actually controlling the airplane, all at once. But I suspect multitasking works much better when the tasks all have something to do with one another, in this case the safety of the flight….talking to a friend on the phone about non-aviation matters would, I suspect, be much more disruptive to the other tasks than talking to a controller about a change in altitude requested.

    I also wonder about the interaction of multitasking and emotions. The very term multitasking is a computer-industry term, and computers/software don’t have any emotions (though they do lose a certain amount of efficiency when rapidly switching from task to task.) I’d hypothesize that the amount of time necessary to establish a new emotional context is significantly greater than the amount of time necessary to establish a new intellectual context. And emotions tend to direct attention. So the interaction between what the student is (supposedly) learning in class and what he is reading on his computer screen may involve a diffusion of emotional focus as well as of intellectual attention.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Much to think about there, david.

  5. Timothy Burke Says:

    I see, so notetaking no longer involves compression and restatement as it did in ye olden days? Thinking, listening and notetaking is pure, unadulterated transcription, a download of the immortal wisdom dispensed by a professor?

    This is making a fetish of the 140 characters, and of the act of publishing or disseminating them. If I could show you the notes of a smart student who aphoristically reassembled a lecture or discussion into broken sections of 140, 150, 160, 200 characters each, you would discount the first of the four and praise the latter as thoughtful and uncontaminated by technology?

    You are fond of pointing to blindspots, but I think you have one too: a tendency to attribute to technology what is really attributable to bad thinking and bad faith. The latter flourish (and flourished perfectly well in the absence of information technology, even if they’re inclined to cite the technology as justification or vindication.

  6. Ian Says:

    Tim reads this as meaning that the student is tweeting about the content of the lecture (and thus this is a variation of the debate as to whether conference presentations should be tweeted). My reading of the cited passage (and the original piece) is that the student is referring to tweeting which has nothing to do with the lecture. Perhaps this doesn’t make a difference. I think it does.

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