According to most cognitive scientists, performing even two relatively complex mental tasks at once is practically impossible for the average person, unless one of them has been completely automatised through practice. What people usually do when they think they are multitasking is actually task switching, or alternating between tasks over short periods of time, which causes a loss in efficiency.
Different tasks have different objectives and rules to attain them, which means that every time we move from one task to another, different objectives and rules must be taken into consideration. These goals, and the mental processes required to achieve them, become more complicated as the tasks themselves become more challenging, which leads to a greater loss in efficiency, and therefore a greater loss of time every time one switches between these tasks. This means the different tasks eventually take longer to accomplish than if they had been completed one after the other.
Imagine a student trying to complete their homework while watching television and answering the occasional message on social media. Each task has a different objective, and different rules to follow while trying to achieve it, all of which must be brought back into the students’ working memory to focus on the task at hand. Not only do the various tasks take longer to complete than they would individually, but the quality of the work can also suffer, depending on time constraints and the complexity of the tasks.
Then why do we multitask?
We multitask, simply because we can. Our brains continuously enable us to perform several tasks at once, whether we are simply washing the dishes while watching television, or enjoying an afternoon drive while talking to a friend sitting in the passenger seat.
Multitasking is in our nature and saves us a lot of time on a daily basis, and it is therefore useless to try to discourage students from engaging in it, especially considering the potential for multitasking students are faced with these days. The simple fact that they are constantly connected is sufficient to disrupt their thoughts and interfere with their work, which is precisely what tools like Wooclap aim to remedy.
Tips to share with students
First, the inevitable loss in efficiency means the tasks at hand will need more time to be completed. If the available time is limited, either the quality of the work will suffer, or some tasks won’t be finished, and if they manage to allocate additional time to their completion, they will face other negative consequences of multitasking, most likely sleep loss.
If they have ample time on their hands, however, multitasking might be applicable, as long as they plan their task switching carefully and sensibly to avoid interruptions (due to social media, for example). When done correctly, this can actually be beneficial to learning.
Lastly, avoid multitasking if the task to be completed is particularly challenging, or if its quality is important. Focusing solely on such tasks is the most efficient way to ensure they are completed correctly.
Content drawn from “The Science of Learning — What Every Teacher Should Know”, EdX: https://www.edx.org