Multi-tasking or Multi-distracted?

This week my students related to me how an assignment I designed to take 15 minutes took as long as 45-60 minutes. After some questions from me and responses from them, I discovered that most of my students (probably 75% of them) text, instant message, or use the internet while completing their homework. Of course, I said to them “no wonder it takes you so long. You’re distracted.” And of course, they tell me “we’re multi-tasking.”

Coincidentally, this month’s neatoday has an article all about multi-tasking focusing on three myths about multi-tasking. They are:

  1. Multi-tasking saves time,
  2. Mutli-tasked learning is as good as single-task learning, and
  3. Multi-tasking [is the] forte of the young.

To me, these seemed obvious and common sense, but I guess not.

Last year when my students mentioned that multi-tasking and distractions are not a factor I had my students read “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. For those of you unfamiliar with this short story, it takes place in the future with attempts being made to make everyone equal by requiring “handicaps” be placed on those with advantages over others. For example, beautiful people have to wear items like masks and goofy noses making them less pretty while very strong people have to wear heavy bags of bird shot, and intelligent people have to wear devices making loud noises to interrupt their thoughts.

I then divided the class in half with one group reading out in the hallway and the other group staying in class to read. However, I prearranged to get a bit of help from my TA and my neighbor’s two TAs for a little experiment. Those in the hall read uninterrupted while my TAs had assigned duties: one had to bang on my table loudly five times every minute, one had to clap her hands three times every thirty seconds, and the last one had to ring a bell every forty seconds.

Of course, the students were quite surprised at first, then annoyed, and finally frustrated as the hallway group finished first, and I stopped everyone to take a quiz. I got all sorts of complaints about the distractions, so I stopped the conversation with one simple statement: “So you’re saying distractions make assignments take longer?” They then got the point about multi-tasking, and we didn’t take the quiz.

I can’t say for sure that I changed anyone’s habits, but I did make my point. Still, I didn’t get any more complaints about homework time and we read a great story, so I consider that in itself a victory even if a small one. 🙂


8 thoughts on “Multi-tasking or Multi-distracted?

  1. drpezz Post author

    I love that story! In truth, the kids really know the right way to do things, but they usually just want someone to comfort their rationalizations. 🙂

  2. Renee

    Love the “experiment”. I actually watched something on TV (NOVA maybe) about multi-tasking and how there really is no such thing. There was an experiment where they mapped the part of the brain that was being taxed between two unrelated tasks. Our brains are so clever that we can change what we’re paying attention to so fast that we *think* we’re multi-tasking, but we’re really starting, stopping, and changing what we’re paying attention to over and over. Probably why it takes longer to do things when we’re doing more than one thing at once!

  3. Annie

    I absolutely love your sociological experiement – very Cosby-style approach to getting your point across. I think I could take your lesson to heart as well.

    Thanks for the story recommendation as well. It sounds like a great conversation-starter for many topics.

  4. lucy

    I also love this assignment. Perhaps another assignment might point out the social aspects of multi tasking such as disturbing other students, being dis-respectful to the teacher and other behaviors that used to be socially unacceptable. I don’t know maybe taking cell phone calls several times during a lesson or something. You never know, we might be able to connect with students and at least have a small portion of future adults who don’t use cell phones or text in resteraunts or cashier lines???

    – Lucy

  5. drpezz Post author

    Sorry about that bounce back. Some e-mails, if they contain a video file, will be blocked. People in my district were exchanging videos back and forth too often, and the techies blocked all video (or large files). I’ll see if I can get your site unblocked. I learn a lot from you. 🙂

  6. Gym334

    Wow! You have teaching assistance. Where are you, Heaven:)

    My grand daughter, both 16, cannot live without tex-ting, etc. They open their purses and it looks like Radio Shack.

    Multi-tasking, Humbug Bah! What crap. If this planet starts spinning any faster, it’s going to throw us all off.

    Focus. You can multi-task when you’re dead:)


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