By Aileen Tierney and Erin McQuitty
Picture this: You’re trying to study for your first college exam, but your phone keeps buzzing. You try to answer texts and check your notifications while also reading your textbook in between. You think you have a handle on your studies because of this multitasking, but when it’s time to take your test, you realize you don’t remember anything you read about before. Why?!
Students commonly think that multitasking is an effective way to tackle the many assignments on their to-do list. In cognitive psychology, multitasking is referred to as having divided attention, or the ability to pay attention to, or carry out, two or more different tasks simultaneously (1). Having the TV on while studying, checking your phone in between reading paragraphs of a textbook, and listening to music while writing a paper are all common ways students divide their attention, and doing these things can actually work against students as they try to remember concepts for exams.
At this point, many students would disregard that claim, thinking to themselves that they are, in fact, able to multitask efficiently. Well, in some respects, they’re right. In Walter Schnieder and Robert Shiffrin’s 1977 experiment that involved divided attention, subjects were required to carry out two tasks simultaneously: 1) holding information about target stimuli in memory and 2) paying attention to a series of “distractor” stimuli and determining whether one of the target stimuli was present in the distractor stimuli. At the beginning of the experiment, the subjects’ performance was only 55% correct and it took 900 trials for performance to reach 90% accuracy (2). This experiment involved simple multitasking: participants had to choose a number or letter from a set of target stimuli. Through practice, these participants were able to divide their attention and remain accurate.
These concepts can be applied to everyday life as well with simple activities that you’re used to doing. For example, you can pay attention to a conversation while also playing a game on your phone. Cognitive psychology calls this ability to properly multitask with practice as automatic processing, which occurs without your intention and uses up only a small amount of your cognitive resources (1).
So then, you’re probably wondering where the problem is. Multitasking has been proven to be possible in some cases, so it must be ok to check your phone while you study! Unfortunately, though, it isn’t as simple as that. Yes, the above-mentioned research showed that with simple, well-rehearsed tasks, effective multitasking is possible. The keywords, though, are simple and well-rehearsed. Those findings don’t apply to difficult or novel tasks that you’re unfamiliar with. As one study put it, “People can walk and chew gum at the same time, but not walk, chew gum, play Frisbee, and solve calculus problems” (3). Difficult tasks take up more attentional resources, meaning that a person can’t focus on more than one thing without spreading their attention too thin (3). Studying for exams is a difficult task that requires you to really focus on the new material you need to take in.
Take another, more serious example: texting while driving. Many people who claim to be masters at multitasking usually claim that they’re able to talk or text on their phone while also driving. Unfortunately, the research is against them. For example, a previous study had participants do a simulated driving task that required them to talk on the phone while also pressing the brake when confronted with a red light (4). Their results stated that, “doing this task while talking on a cell phone caused subjects to miss twice as many of the red lights as when they weren’t talking on the phone” (4). The results show that driving and watching for red lights was a difficult task that required participants’ full attention. Multitasking and automatic processing weren’t possible because of the difficulty of the task at hand. So then, when it comes to studying for an exam or driving somewhere, you shouldn’t try to multitask and risk failure (or serious injury in the case of texting while driving).
Need more evidence? A recent study done at the University of Connecticut discovered a strong, negative correlation between multitasking and academic achievement (5). This study looked at students’ behavior during class lecture, and researchers found that a lot of students would text on their computers and check social media while also taking notes (5). Dividing attention kept students from fully paying attention to the lecture, meaning that they couldn’t fully absorb the new material and properly remember concepts for the exam. With increased multitasking, students were less able to be accurate on their tests.
So, how can you improve your college study habits you ask? A helpful tip would be to minimize distractions and pay full attention to the things you’re studying. While reading or looking over notes, put your phone away and out of sight. This will keep you from being tempted to distract yourself with texts, Twitter, and any other apps that posses your soul.
College can be stressful if you don’t know how to manage your time, but by minimizing distractions and avoiding dividing your attention, success is within your grasp!
(1) Goldstein, E.B. (2015). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Stamford, CT, Cenage Learning.
(2) Schneider, W. & Shiffrin, R. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: Perceptual learning, automatic attending, and a general theory. Psychological Review, 84, 127-190).
(3) Glenn, D. (2010, February 5). Divided Attention. Chronicle of Higher Education. p. B6.
(4) Strayer, D. & Johnston, W. (2001). Driven to distraction: Dual-task studies of simulated driving and conversing on a cellular telephone. Psychological Science, 12, 462-466
(5) Poitras, C. (2015). Multitasking increases study time, lowers grades, University of Connecticut. Retrieved from: http://clas.uconn.edu/2015/07/23/multitasking-increases-study-time-lowers-grades/