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January 21, 2010


Can Students Multitask?

by Peter Skillen

Can Students Multitask?  This is the Wrong Question.

I hear it all the time from students.  “I am doing my work!  I’m multitasking.” And, in fact, they often are flipping back and forth between the ‘task at hand’, Facebook, internet radio, YouTube, etc.

“I am doing my work!  I’m multitasking.”

I won’t debate the issue of multitasking itself in this post.  That one is open for discussion later. Briefly, many people are now saying that, in fact, people don’t multitask.  They suggest that your mind is switching back and forth (sometimes rapidly) between thought streams or tasks.  Parallel processing models of computation, on the other hand, would suggest that you can indeed multitask.  However, that is not the big question for me.  I would suggest it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’.

…it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’

Mental effort is not unlimited.  It is somewhat finite. However, when you are working on a task it is often the case that it does not occupy your total ‘mental effort’. You may have some spare mental capacity.

Mindful Engagement & Expertise

There are three options for allocating your spare mental capacity.

One, you may exert NO effort, or intentional control, over the extra mental capacity and just allow ideas and thoughts to enter your mind at random… responding to external or internal stimuli such as a phone ringing or voices overheard.

Second, you may choose to direct that spare mental capacity to something specific, yet unrelated to the present task. For example, you may think about an upcoming holiday, or your child’s next sporting event.

Third, you may choose to direct the extra mental effort back into the task itself… evaluating effectiveness, determining better strategies, reflecting on generalizations to other similar, or different, domains.  ‘How am I doing?’ ‘What could I do differently next time?’ ‘How can I kick it up a notch?’ Thus you are reinvesting all your efforts into maximizing performance and generalizable skills.

I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’.

This latter example characterizes ‘expertise’ and ‘expert learners’.  I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’. If they are not reinvesting their extra mental energy back into the task in this intentional, metacognitive fashion, then, in my opinion, they are not ‘doing their work’ effectively.

I have found this explanation useful to students when they claim that they are ‘doing their work’.



Disclaimers – but a few:

I will grant that there may be environmental conditions that may enhance ‘flow’ or ‘state of mind’. For example, Baroque music – at 40–60 beats per minute – encourages beta brainwave activity that is associated with relaxation.  Not that most of our students are listening to baroque!  However, the point is made that some music, as an example, may be conducive to guiding the brain to a better place for learning.

It is also understood that there are other parameters to this discussion. For example, if I am intentionally directing spare mental effort elsewhere – to another ‘purposeful’ task, one could say that I am becoming an ‘expert generalist’.  After all, ‘specialization is for insects’ – said Robert Heinlein.

And indeed, there are personality factors, mood factors, variety and quantity of modalities engaged, and, of course, the inherent level of demand of the ‘task at hand’.  It may be fairly ‘mindless’ or absolutely uninteresting and inconsequential to my life.



MetacognitionJulie Halter Graduate Student, SDSU Department of Educational Technology

Novice and Expert Learners – From: M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino (eds.), How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, xiii.

Expert Learners – a post from Will Richardson

Thank you to Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter for their inspiration to me regarding ‘expertise’.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 22 2010

    Great post, Peter! It helps me take a step back and think about what I’m doing, or not doing, when I’m trying to multi-task.

    Two quick thoughts come to mind:
    When I’m in a state of flow, I’m not usually directing my thoughts back to how I’m doing with the task, I’m actually lost in it and time passes without me noticing…so that’s not really any of your 3 options above…is the state of flow then considered a 4th option for mental effort?

    And, I’ve forgotten my second comment….LOL…must be too much multi-tasking.

    • pskillen
      Jan 22 2010

      Hmmmm…ah yes…flow…good old Mihaly…

      I am thinking that it may fall into the ‘reinvesting back into the task’ category. Maybe not clinically correct on my part to say that, or maybe, if you are in a state of flow, perhaps there is no spare mental effort to consider. It may all be used up engaged in the here and now of the task. Or, maybe it is reinvested back to the task but not so consciously or intentionally.

      Great observation Brenda. Love to be challenged and to think more deeply about it all.

      • Jan 22 2010

        I was thinking it was more along the lines of not having (or wanting) any spare mental energy left for other things. So, it makes me think that we want our students to be aware of both states…that perfect “I love this and I’m lost in it, where did the time go?” situation that Mihaly describes for some tasks and “how did I do?” for other tasks.

        Perhaps motivation and interest play a part too. I’m more likely to reach a state of flow when it’s something I’ve chosen to do…often in schools students don’t have this option and perhaps that’s when there is more left over mental energy for daydreaming, checking facebook or monitoring oneself in the task! 🙂

        Another issue I have with the overloaded curriculum, but that’s another topic!

  2. pskillen
    Jan 22 2010

    Agreed Brenda. Thx.

    One of the challenging arguments in discussions about deep thinking is, in fact, that of ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ thought. Is it necessary, some suggest, to actually be explicit about discussing, or being aware, of your own thinking. Or is implicit good enough if ‘deep thinking’ is underway? I think, like you, that is varies…and I think that there is value in that variation.

    What I would like kids to be able to do is to, in essence, be aware and capable of that choice – to have the capabilities to be ‘aware’ and to ‘objectify’ their thinking processes. If they have those capabilities, then the next ‘level of control’ from them can be to opportunistically work/play/learn implicitly or explicitly. They should be able to ‘slide the slider’ up and down the continua of awareness according to all the internal and external factors impacting the activity.

    I know that you and I have spoken of this ‘slider’ metaphor before. And we love it.

    I just really need the locus of control over that slider to be in the hands of the learner. And, if they are not capable of executing behaviours on all points along those sliders, then they cannot be in control. In other words, they need to learn the metacognitive skills and strategies and call upon them as required.

    And, we – as a school system – need to stop boring the living daylights out of them with contrived, irrelevant material. Lack of passion, interest and motivation kills both the students’ ‘desire to know’ and their opportunities to develop these metacognitive strategies.

  3. Sep 9 2014

    Aw, this was a really nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to create a great article… but what
    can I say… I hesitate a lot and never manage to get anything done.


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