Screen multitasking, cognitive overload, and learning

This week, for me, is week 1 of a new academic year (not all universities start at the same time; and, indeed, even within the same university, there may be staggering starts for different programmes and year groups. Luckily, this year I managed to go back to the classroom. I say “luckily” because, while teaching online, from my house, had many logistical advantages, there was a lot that was lost in the process. For instance, the cues that we get from students’ body language about how well they are understanding the topic are all gone; and there is very limited opportunity for casual chats with students during the break or at the end of the session.

While I am back to the classroom (and happy to so do), that is not the case with all students. Thus, this term, I am doing hybrid teaching, whereby I am interacting with students in the classroom and students online, simultaneously. And when you have one part of your audience online and the other part in front of you but with digital devices at hand, that means one thing: using technology – for instance, online polls – to get both groups to engage in the same activity.

The challenge is, then, to draw students’ attention away from those devices and/or browser, and back to me. Why? Because there is a huge temptation to “multitask” – i.e., keep an eye on lecture slides, while quickly checking the messaging app, the likes on a social media post, and so on. 

While these technologies can be a useful tool to engage both groups of students in the same activity, they are also very distracting and have been shown to interfere with students’ working memory and attention, and, consequently, negatively impact key outcomes such as note-taking, recall, reading comprehension and, of course, performance and grades. These effects are described in the paper “Efficient, helpful, or distracting? A literature review of media multitasking in relation to academic performance”, authored by Kaitlyn E. May and Anastasia D. Elder, and published in the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education.

In fact, the authors say that “multitasking” is a myth. We can’t really do / process more than one thing at any one time. What happens, instead, is that our mind switches between tasks, such that, when it is paying attention to one (e.g., the notification), it can’t process the other (e.g., the class activity). Trying to multitask, then, creates “deficits in cognitive control”, whereby we can’t focus attention on goal-relevant information, filter irrelevant information, switch efficiently between tasks, or retain information temporarily. 

Moreover, because attention is a limited resource, and because switching between tasks also uses up this resource, when we keep switching between screens, “attentional demand exceeds attentional capacity, the cognitive system overloads and performance suffers.”

Screen switching is also thought to negatively impact on visual working memory, which the authors described as a “cognitive system that holds a limited amount of visual information in a temporary storage buffer so that it may be accessed to efficiently achieve goals.” Though, the authors also mention research suggesting that this effect may be higher in infrequent media multitaskers than in frequent ones, maybe as a result of development of filtering skills. Nonetheless, May and Elder’s review strongly points to the conclusion that trying to balance multiple digital inputs (in class, or at home) negatively impacts learning and cognition “through rapid use of the limited capacity of learners’ information processing channels, especially attention processes, leaving insufficient space for meaningful learning.”

Obviously, these effects apply to us, too. I am no stranger to trying to keep an eye on the e-mails, checking a report and planning dinner, while attending an online seminar or participating in a training workshop. 

The challenge, though, is that focus requires training. It takes practice to be able to achieve focus, and to maintain that focus for increasing periods of time.

So, to help me tackle my own screen multitasking issue, I decided to revisit Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work (which I reviewed, here).

Cal Newport outlines four practices to develop the ability to “work for extended periods of time with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction” (page 44). They are:

  • Dedicate large chunks of time to knowledge work, and engage fully with the task at hand, without interruptions or distractions;
  • Resist the urge to do something, when we feel bored or challenged; and, instead, embrace the feeling that comes with being frustrated with a task, and push through it;
  • Quit social media for a while, without announcing it to anyone. Then, when (or even if) we really can’t find a better tool than a particular social media platform to do whatever it is that we need to do (e.g., entertainment, get in touch with someone, research an issue, etc…), we can go back to using that platform, in our own terms;
  • Minimise the time and energy spent on non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks.

How is it going? Well, it’s a work in progress, for me. But, I know that focus helps not only the quality of my work, but also my energy levels.

If you, too, find yourself tempted by screen multitasking, I hope that May and Elder’s paper gives you the impetus needed to work on a bit of “digital hygiene”. The effort is very much worth it. 

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