Managing Multitasking: What teachers and students need to know—and do
Updated: Jan 9
This is Part 3 of a series called, Learn, Teach, Model:
Learn about memory . . . because it makes you a better teacher
Teach students about memory . . . so that they have control (and you have buy-in)
Model the strategies . . . so they see it in action and know we value them
See links to other topics at end of this article.
MULTITASKING: LEARN IT
Are you multitasking? Is the TV on? Is someone in background talking to you? Are you at school on break duty?
Although originally popularised to describe computer processing, multitasking is in many ways human. Multitasking refers to doing more than one task at time. Life would be very difficult if we couldn’t walk and talk at the same time. In this blog, however, when I refer to multitasking, I’m referring to cognitive tasks (e.g. problem solving) rather than physical tasks (walking or driving). When doing more than one thing at a time, especially more than one complex, cognitive task, you are less productive, because you have to switch your attention to a new thing.
As we switch from task to task, new goals and rules have to be brought into working memory to re-engage with the task (1). Depending on the complexity of the tasks involved, and the time available to complete them, performance can also suffer. Research shows that even having the TV on in background produces less effective homework. According to some studies, multitasking can reduce our productivity by 40 percent. (2, 3) To do something well, it is best for your brain to focus on one task at a time. Our brains just weren’t designed to ‘multitask’ cognitive tasks. A more accurate term would be ‘multi-switching.’
Young people have many more things to pay attention to compared with older generations, so temptations and potential addictions are heightened. A ‘like’ notification on your iphone can lead a switchboard of other attention grabbers. Adolescent brains, which are much more sensitive to pleasure and peer acceptance than adult brains, are forming habits of mind that will be difficult to unlearn once taken into adulthood. (See Neuroplasticity by Sentis, a great video that explains how habits form in the brain.)
MULTITASKING MANAGEMENT: TEACH IT
Helping students regulate multitasking shows them how to better manage their time and energy for more impact. Be realistic: They are going to multitask, and that’s not always a bad thing if they can manage it. Below are some suggestions for teaching students about multitasking:
1. Demonstrate what it really feels like. This is crucial for student buy-in. One simple method:
Task 1: Ask students to count from 1 to 10 and then recite the alphabet from A to J. “I, 2, 3 . . . . A, B, C . . . “
Task 2: Ask students to alternate between the two, so say, “1, A, 2, B, 3, C . . . etc.”
Debrief: What did that felt like? Why was the second one harder?
A quick google search will reveal other ways to demonstrate this. No matter which one you do, the participants will feel that having to multitask (or multi-switch) is tiring and time-consuming. In fact, a few weeks ago, I did it with a group of teachers, who concluded, “This is why we are so exhausted at the end of the day. We are constantly multi-switching.” Exactly!
2. Define what’s happening: Use the information in “Learn It”, above, to explain multitasking and why it can be so tiring, differentiated for your students. I recently used the text in “Learn It” for a group of year 9 students, who had to read it and then teach it their classmates. Multitasking is the most depleting to our productivity when we are completing higher order tasks, such as writing a persuasive essay, completing complex Maths problems or rehearsing lines for Drama.
3. Brainstorm distractions and ways to avoid them: When I survey students about the biggest obstacles they face when doing independent revision, they consistently report ‘distractions’ as the cause. The pull is incredibly strong. One student told me, “But even if I turn off notifications, I’ll know they are still there. I’ll be missing something.” (There some research into how ‘likes’ become addictive, because they send a shot of dopamine to the brain, but there are conflicting reports.)
More on distractions: Share some of your own strategies, but ultimately get students come up with their own. Phones are obviously a main culprit that eats our attention. I loved one student’s idea to give his phone to his mum. Another student said that when she gets the urge to check for notifications, she just takes a deep breath and says, “It’s not going anywhere.” Other strategies include:
Turn off all notifications or put your phone on airport mode.
Close tabs if working on a computer.
Tell people that you do not want to be disturbed. (Wear headphones as a sign that you don’t want company.)
Find a quiet place to work (away from family and friends). For some children, this may encourage them to stay after school if home life is chaotic.
4. Save the easiest for last; do the hardest first. Guide students to make a list of what you need to do and start with the hardest task. In Brian Tracy’s helpful and often humourous book, Eat That Frog! Get More of the Important Things Done Today, he advises that we should treat tasks like eating live frogs (which we imagine is not pleasant). A frog is your biggest, most important task. Eat that frog first. If you have two frogs, eat the ugliest, most disgusting one first. Although not politically correct, it’s a fun image for students to use. Just grin and bear it.
5. Take breaks: Research shows that our brains were not meant for long periods of concentration either. According to neurologist and teacher Judy Willis, our brains need breaks in order to replenish brain chemicals (neurotransmitters that carry messages from one nerve to the next as we learn). Depending on students’ ages and “focus development,” brain break frequency will vary, according to Willis. "As a general rule, concentrated study of 10 to 15 minutes for elementary (primary) school and 20 to 30 minutes for middle and high school (secondary school) students calls for a three- to five-minute break.”
MULTITASKING MANAGEMENT: MODEL IT
Modelling how to manage multitasking shows students how to do it and shows that the teacher values this type of metacognitive skill as an important part of learning. To model:
1. Incorporate sustained periods of silent work—and mean it. Students need to experience what it feels like to work without distractions, and know that you value it as part of the learning process. Depending on your class, start small and build it up. If they have a question while working, encourage them to save it for the end or agree on a signal that does not disturb others.
2. Minimise distractions. Pay attention to how many tasks you are asking students to do at once with their working memories. How many times have you asked students to copy notes that you were talking over? If you want them to listen to you, don’t ask them to do another task. Students complain about this all of time, but we persist. (I remember complaining about this when I was in school.)
3. Schedule breaks, especially after sustained periods of concentrated work or complex tasks. Stretch or put your arms out and touch your nose; Use ‘Fist to 5’ to get students to rate their Effort or Level of Challenge.
4. Be explicit and consistent. Modelling sends the message that managing multitasking is an important part of being a good learner. It’s worth it, so stick with it. Remind students that it’s OK if you find it difficult at first. Habits take a while to form.
Therefore, make your modelling explicit. Use phrases such as:
“We need 15 minutes of silence so that everyone can focus their attention—no goal shifting, no rule shifting.”
“Concentration takes practice.”
“If you get distracted, note what happens and refocus your attention immediately.”
What about the challenges? (These were introduced in Part 1 of this blog.)
This is Part 3 of a series called Learn, Teach, Model. Part 1 introduces the series, the main challenges teachers face and an approach that will help. See How to get students to use the Learning Strategies that we're so excited about. In Part 2, I focused on Retrieval Practice: How to Get Students Using It . For this article, I chose to write about Managing Multitasking. Although not specifically a learning strategy, it is an important metacognitive skill we must learn about, teach students and model to help them better utilise their working memories.
I hope this have been useful for teachers out there. Please leave comments, retweet and/or follow me on Twitter @triciatailored. I welcome your feedback.
Rubinstein, Joshua; Meyer, David, E.; and Evans, Jeffrey E. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4, 763-797.
Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.
Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997b). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 2. Accounts of psychological refractory-period phenomena. Psychological Review, 104, 749-791.