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’.