In an age of classroom multitasking, scholars probe the nature of learning and memory
By David Glenn
Imagine that driving across town, you've fallen into a reverie, meditating on lost loves or calculating your next tax payments. You're so distracted that you rear-end the car in front of you at 10 miles an hour. You probably think: Damn. My fault. My mind just wasn't there.
By contrast, imagine that you drive across town in a state of mild exhilaration, multitasking on your way to a sales meeting. You're drinking coffee and talking to your boss on a cellphone, practicing your pitch. You cause an identical accident. You've heard all the warnings about cellphones and driving—but on a gut level, this wreck might bewilder you in a way that the first scenario didn't. Wasn't I operating at peak alertness just then? Your brain had been aroused to perform several tasks, and you had an illusory sense that you must be performing them well.
That illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom. Students' minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.
"Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities," says Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. "But there's evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people."
Indeed, last summer Nass and two colleagues published a study that found that self-described multitaskers performed much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than did people who said they preferred to focus on single tasks. Nass says he was surprised at the result: He had expected the multitaskers to perform better on at least some elements of the test. But no. The study was yet another piece of evidence for the unwisdom of multitasking.
Experiments like that one have added fuel to the perpetual debate about whether laptops should be allowed in classrooms. But that is just one small, prosaic part of this terrain. Nass and other scholars of attention and alertness say their work has the potential to illuminate unsettled questions about the nature of learning, memory, and intelligence.