About seven years ago, while watching my high school-aged daughter work on a school assignment, I realized the assault of technology on learning for the millennial generation. As she wrote her paper, she frequently interrupted her writing to read and respond to text messages on her phone. When she received an alert — which seemed to occur every two or three minutes — she’d stop writing her paper, respond to the text and then resume her work.

Rather than scold or admonish her to put the phone away, I wondered whether this distracted approach was the new way to work:  the new learning norm. After all, she was a straight “A” student at her selective high school at the time. I figured that somehow, as human beings adapted to new media (writing, the printing press, typewriters, word processors and now smartphones and tablets), perhaps our brains somehow adapted, as well, to absorb multiple, simultaneous streams of information.

Could it be possible that our brains could adapt to multitask more efficiently, thereby enabling us to perhaps learn twice the information in the same amount of time? In other words, by overloading ourselves with information, can humans actually evolve to learn calculus and analyze Chaucer simultaneously?

The answer is a resounding NO.

A study by Larry Rosen, a California State University professor of psychology, published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior,  observed 263 middle school, high school and college students over a 15-minute period as they completed their homework, worked on projects, studied for exams and read books. The students were allowed to respond to texts, use email, talk on the phone and watch their Facebook and Twitter feeds while being directed to “study something important.” Two findings stuck out for me.

First, as early as two minutes into the exercise, students began to decline in “on-task behavior.” In other words, it took just two minutes before these middle school, high school and college students started to let their other devices and activities distract them from their schoolwork. Two-minute attention spans! Even more troubling was that these students were told they were being observed! (This contrived self-awareness makes me wonder what the true attention span is for students who aren't being watched.)

More important, to my original question about learning, the researchers found that over a 15-minute period, the students only spent 65 percent of the time actually working on their schoolwork!
When we multitask while doing our work, our learning is shallow and spotty, and we make more mistakes. Why? Because our brains can only handle one higher-order thinking activity at a time (such as studying engineering or physics).

We can get smarter but not while we’re distracted.

Media multitasking keeps us from developing deep understanding, the type of understanding required in mathematics and engineering courses. The ultimate purpose of learning is to become proficient and transfer what we've learned to new and novel contexts. It’s impossible to remember something if we've never really learned it. 

One study of particular note found that students who texted and followed Facebook the most also had the lowest college GPAs! And in one large survey, 80 percent of college students admitted to texting during class.

In the Rosen study, for every 15 minutes, only two-thirds, or about 10 minutes, was spent on study. The rest of the time was wasted! (My guess is that had the observations been extended to an hour or two, the ratio of homework to wasted time would have been worse.)

This means that as a learner, you can actually buy back as much as a third of your study time by resisting the temptation to check up on friends or respond to text and email alerts while studying.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) made popular the phrase, “Don’t Drink and Drive.” Oprah Winfrey has scores of us signing a “No Phone Zone” pledge, so we can keep our eyes on the road when driving. NSBE needs to start a “You Can’t Text and Learn” campaign!

My daughter went on to become a magna cum laude college graduate. At times, she learned to go “off the grid” to focus on her schoolwork by suspending her Facebook account for weeks at a time. Perhaps we can take a lesson from her and others who’ve “learned how to learn” by unplugging when focus is necessary. Our “Friends” will still be there, chatting and posting away when we reconnect. And when we do reconnect, chances are, we can teach them a thing or two.

For more information about the Rosen study, go to http://hechingerreport.org/content/the-new-marshmallow-test-resisting-the-temptations-of-the-web_11941/
When we multitask while doing our work, our learning is shallow and spotty, and we make more mistakes. Why? Because our brains can only handle one higher-order thinking activity at a time (such as studying engineering or physics).