Students Can’t Multitask

From, "Your crotch can kill, claim Alberta ads." Feb. 21, 2013,

From, “Your crotch can kill, claim Alberta ads.” Feb. 21, 2013,

I found myself completely confused, mouth agape, as I stood in line at McMaster’s Wellness Centre this week. I was looking at one ad of what I now know is a series produced by the Alberta government. The ad reads: “Crotches Kill.” I stood there at the Wellness Centre, eyes darting from the bold letters (can we call it a slogan?), to the image of the lady looking really happy about (with?) her crotch; then my eyes dropped a bit, taking in the assortment of free condoms placed just below and to the left of the ad, and then they darted right back to “CROTCHES KILL.” WTF, right? W. T. F.

Okay, so eventually I figured it out. Texting can be a fatal distraction when you’re DRIVING! (I was worried for a minute there, that it might be catching, or something. But no (phew!), texting is not an STI!).

A great post from blogger Maryellen Weimer compels us to ask, however: Can texting be a fatal distraction from LEARNING?

Last year at The Teaching Professor Blog, Maryellen Weimer wrote a post that concisely and effectively draws out the findings of 5 different studies on student distraction in classrooms. She shared those findings not just to confirm what most instructors already instinctively know–that laptops and cell phones are a distraction to students in their classrooms–but so that instructors might take these findings and share them in their classrooms. She writes: “I wonder if it isn’t smarter to confront students with the facts. Not admonitions, but concrete evidence that multitasking compromises their efforts to learn.” I believe that most students want to be engaged during lectures. They want to leave a lecture hall feeling like they’ve learned something. The intentions of many learners, if not the large majority of learners, are good, then; combined with the “concrete evidence” Maryellen so succinctly lays out for her readers, these good intention might actually lead to more focused listening in many lecture halls.

I don’t want to reproduce the entirety of Maryellen’s discussion here out of respect to her intellectual property & labour, so I’ll just share a snippet, and encourage you to click through to read the rest of her post. You might even print it, or incorporate it (or parts of it) into your lecture slides as a discussion starter for your upcoming lectures.

Here’s that snippet, just one of the 5 studies Maryellen summarizes:

This research focused on the use of laptops in a 15-week management information systems class enrolling 97 upper division students. With student consent, researchers used a spyware program that tracked the windows and page names for each software application run during class time. Students were encouraged to run “productive windows”—those that related to course content. Spyware also tracked the number of “distractive windows” students ran, including games, pictures, email, instant messaging and web surfing. Students had these distractive windows open 42% of the class time. Students who tried to listen to the lecture while using these distractive windows had significantly lower scores on homework, projects, quizzes, final exams and final course averages than students who looked at mostly productive windows. Researchers also found that this population under reported the extent of their multitasking.

Maryellen says that “specifics are persuasive”; I’m curious to hear if anyone thinks that sharing specifics like the findings she reports would persuade students in their classrooms.


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