So You Think You Are an Effective Multitasker?

Written by Kelly A. Hogan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Learning Outcomes:

– To point out that all humans are less effective at tasks as we juggle more and more at the same time

– To demonstrate an inverse relationship between multitasking during class and student learning

Activity Description: Students collect data about their own multitasking ability. The effectiveness of each single activity decreases as two tasks are performed simultaneously.

Time Needed: The worksheet will take approximately 5 minutes followed by discussion.

Materials Needed: Photocopies of the worksheets and student watches to measure seconds (or a classroom display of a computerized clock in a large classroom)

Activity Instructions: Hand out the worksheet and have the students work in pairs to record each other’s time. After the students have completed it, ask them what they think it demonstrates relative to the classroom. Encourage your students to see how switching between a quick text or email or website while trying to take notes in class could be more detrimental than they realize. Have a discussion about laptops in the classroom. This might be an opportunity to get their opinions and share your philosophy.

Fun background relative to this activity:

  1. This activity is based on demonstrations that David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the Universityof Michiganat Ann Arbordoes in his class. A typical student can do the individual tasks in about 2 seconds. You might guess that it should take about 4 seconds to combine the tasks, but it usually takes 15-20 seconds and usually includes mistakes. Meyer explains this is because there is a switching time cost. Additionally, studies have shown that people who consider themselves effective multitaskers performed worse on tasks that involved distraction, compared to people who considered themselves better at monotasking. (For more information about multitasking relative to the classroom, see “Divided Attention,” The Chronicle Review, Feb 28, 2010 by David Glenn.)
  2. Rigging a car with a red light to alert drivers when to brake, Car and Driver Magazine demonstrated how dangerous mutitasking can be when driving. Texting while driving is more dangerous than being legally drunk!

The magazine tested how long it takes a driver to hit the brake when sober, when legally drunk at .08, when reading an e-mail, and when sending a text. The driver drove 70 mph on a deserted air strip under different conditions. The results:

Unimpaired: .54 seconds to brake

Legally drunk: add 4 feet

Reading e-mail: add 36 feet

Sending a text: add 70 feet

Makes you wonder what texting during biology class does to exam scores!

Worksheet: Effective Multitasker Worksheet