Multitasking: Can we really do it?

Maria McGinnis

Student life is busy and full of responsibility, and multitasking seems to be the best approach to getting the most done at one time. In reality, it actually has more negative effects on productivity.

Kent State professor Andrew Lepp set out with his colleagues Jacob Barkley and Aryn Karpinski to evaluate just how often students multitask, particularly in online classes versus face to face classes.

Results from the study showed that students do tend to multitask in online classes more frequently.

Barkley, a health sciences professor, was not terribly surprised by the research results. He believes there are established social norms for college students in today’s society.

“They’re supposed to pay attention, they’re not supposed to check their phone, and that’s driven into students throughout their academic career from the time they’re in kindergarten,” Barkley said. “If there’s no teacher in the room those social norms aren’t there to guide your behavior, so it might be easier to multitask in online classes.”

The convenience and flexible scheduling of online classes can make classes more appealing for students with busy schedules.

Senior general business major Jeanette Lansinger changed her coursework from being traditional face-to-face classes to being completely online.

“I run my own business and I’m very blessed to be busy, I have a lot going on in my life,” Lansinger said. “Online classes are just so much easier if you have a busy life.”

Lansinger described her personality as being very “squirrel-like,” making it hard for her to focus on more than one thing at a time. She said she does tend to multitask to an extent.

“I do get distracted very easily and there are times I try to multitask and it just doesn’t work because I can only focus on one thing at a time. I also like being able to do things in spurts,” Lansinger said. “With a face-to-face lecture I can’t get up and take a lap without missing something. But with an online lecture, if I need to get up I can pause the lecture and come back.”

Senior English major Valerie Patrick also prefers online classes and being able to work at her own pace. Patrick found that she actually multitasks more during face-to-face classes than online classes.

“I multitask when I know I have the time (in class), like when the professor is just reading from a PowerPoint,” Patrick said. “I feel like multitasking stimulates us and keeps our minds active whereas just studying in silence could cause us to zone out or get tired quicker.”

According to Lepp’s research and other similar studies, students tend to think they’re good at multitasking, but that isn’t necessarily true.   

“When we compare our ability to do multiple tasks to our ability to just focus on one task, we always do better if we just focus on one,” Lepp said. “There are a lot of studies that demonstrate that if you’re multitasking during a learning exercise, you don’t learn as much compared to if you’re just focused on that one task without being distracted by other things.”

The American Psychological Association compared the effects of heavy multitasking to being distracted in jobs such as air-traffic control where “mental overload could lead to catastrophe.”

Barkley feels the belief that multitasking can actually be accomplished is an American ideal that students have grown conditioned to over time.

“We have a limited amount of executive function, you can think of it as gasoline for your brain,” Barkley said. “Every task you participate in uses a certain amount of executive function. If you’re trying to do multiple things at once, you have multiple ways that you’re draining the executive function and the ability to really focus well.”

We need to move away from the idea of thinking multitasking is OK and maybe even think of it as bad thing to do, Barkley said.

These research results don’t necessarily mean that all multitasking is impossible. However, an academic setting just may not be the place to attempt to focus on more than one thing because retention and comprehension of the course material will be significantly lower.

“If you want to watch TV and fold laundry, great no problem. But, if you want to study physics and also watch your favorite show on Netflix, probably not a good combination,” Barkley said.

Lepp urges students to consider the effects of multitasking in other spheres such as texting and driving or having a conversation with a friend to truly understand the effects and the importance of trying to focus more directly on studying.

“Imagine an important conversation with a close friend,” Lepp said. “Are you going to be texting someone else while having that conversation? What would be the impact of that on your conversation and your relationship with that person?”

Avoiding multitasking can seem hard. Several websites such as Bustle, have published step-by-step guides to help people become more mindful and step away from juggling multiple things at one time.

“Just focus on one thing,” Lepp said. “You will do better.”

Maria McGinnis is the tech reporter. Contact her at [email protected]