Multi-Tasking, Multi-Subjects, Multi-Sources

Thanks to Jason’s for his comment and links yesterday about multi-tasking. Most of the articles I’ve read so far are quite similar, especially when noting how the learning of new material can be hampered by multi-tasking.

I had a conversation with a concerned colleague this morning who stated that kids today feel that they can successfully multi-task (more so than adults) but that their productivity and learning are less than what they believe. His example was of a student doing homework– but doing three subjects simultaneously with a chat window for each open to friends. When one friend chimes in with information about the math homework, he switches to that. When another comes in with science, he switches to that. At the same time, he’s writing his humanities paper and tossing paragraphs into its chat window to be read by another friend.

In some ways, we could consider this six different tasks, and it isn’t hard to imagine that retention and productivity is lower than if the three subjects were done sequentially. The trick is this– how do we teach students about this issue?

To return to the Shakespeare example, is closing yourself in a quiet, secluded room and reading The Merchant of Venice the best and only way to learn? Would it be harmful to stop reading part way through Act II ask ask the teacher of the class if Shylock is a victim or a victimizer, if the instructor happened to be in the room? Or if other students reading the text were in the room? Would that be a benefit?

In my colleague’s mind, that isn’t multitasking (even if done via chat instead of face to face), because the student is working on one subject, and stays focused on learning the subject, despite the fact that he or she stops reading and enters a brief dialog with others. It could be that this is simply “tasking” the language center of the brain on the same topic, and no serious shift is occurring. To me, it is multi-tasking, because the student has to put thoughts into words, and listing to another source, and appraise what he or she thinks in light of the information from a new source other than the text.

If the post test of this example were recall skills of the content, then it might be that having the conversations could reduce recall. If the post test was more conceptual and interpretive, it’s possible that the discussions would improve the understanding and interaction with the concepts.

So, I agree with my colleague on many points, but I do think that there are more issues at play here than how many tasks we attempt. There are also issues of how many subjects we attempt, and how many sources we try to understand or incorporate at once. Taking this further, maybe we can formulate advice to students about the benefits and draw-backs of chats and multi-tasking in a way that is more applicable to the actual ways they work.

As Jason and several articles have noted, we aren’t likely to return to agrarian lifestyles that enable us to focus on the plow as the sun passes through the sky. At the same time, I believe our students are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between a focused and fruitful homework session and one that is a train wreck.

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