Students Can’t Multitask. Or Can They?

Lecture notes on display at the Hamilton Warplane Heritage Museum, uploaded to last Monday.

Lecture notes on display at the Hamilton Warplane Heritage Museum,
uploaded to last Monday.

Two weeks ago I shared part of a post by Maryellen Weimer, titled, “Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t.

Today I’d like to meander in a slightly different direction. A post I came across by blogger and associate professor of psychology, Erica Kleinknecht, suggests otherwise. It seems that students can multitask, in a way, if, as Kleinknecht phrases it, the task they are engaged in is “rich with detail that can serve as cues for later memory retrieval.”

Embodied Learning & Memory Cues

Kleinknecht’s post, “Don’t Forget to Write,” is about why handwriting makes for a much more effective mnemonic device than typing. She explains that “Forty-plus years of empirical work in memory and discourse processing support the statement that [handwriting] is rich with ‘encoding specificity,'” which describes the specific, embodied “cues” by which your brain can later access the overlapping memories of the act of writing and the content that writing recorded, or, perhaps, what one was thinking and/or hearing as one wrote.

Kleinknecht’s vaunting the value of old-fashioned handwriting has met some resistance. And why not? Is it possible that Kleinknecht is oversimplifying the divide between handwriting and typing? Is she demonizing electronic forms of engagement in the classroom? Is she presenting us with the now-familiar scapegoat for teaching failures: digital media, and the shortcomings of a digital generation? In a way, Kleinknecht and Weimer seem to be in agreement: both of their posts might suggest a certain distrust of the use of electronic devices in the classroom. But I don’t think it’s really possible to attribute such a simple, knee-jerk, luddite reaction to electronics in the classroom to either Weimer or Kleinknecht–they are too thoughtful, and their work is just too well-researched.

Instead, what if the take-away point from both writers is that a certain type of multitasking, a certain type of embodied learning, is actually ideal in classroom environments? Should instructors be encouraging physical, bodily forms of making learning memorable?

Introducing Sketchnotes

I recently stumbled across a new trend in education and design spheres: Sketchnotes. What are sketchnotes? Rachel Cole explains:

A sketchnote by Eva-Lotta Lamm

A sketchnote by Eva-Lotta Lamm,

“Visual note taking opens the door for more playful connections between information — for students to use their imaginations, in an activity than can often be very passive — note-taking.”

Quite simply, sketchnotes are notes taken in class that actively involve doodling, regardless of the note-taker’s artistic ability. We’ve all done this–we’ve all sat in classrooms and workshops and found ourselves doodling in the margins of our notebooks. But how have we viewed this activity? As distraction? As disrespectful non-participation? Or as a productive, even necessary part of active listening? For my part, I’ve realized that I’ve always thought of such doodles as, well, unseemly–a bad habit I try to refrain from, but to which I always find myself returning, not without a measure of academic guilt.

Sketchnotes had been on my radar for a week or so when I attended training led by my supervisor at the Student Success Centre on active listening and mentoring. During that session, I decided to give sketchnotes a try, and I let my yearning to doodle run totally wild. I’m not sure this was the best decision, on my part: I committed myself to doodle in a professional space just as I might have in Grade 6, and during a workshop all about active listening–listening where the listener is engaged with the speaker, leaning forward, nodding, affirming, acknowledging, etc. Needless to say, I wasn’t always able to model that behviour. I had more important things to consider: Was orange really the best colour for the ear I had sketched in the top left corner of my notes?

I decided to start doodling that day–er, sketchnoting–mostly to assuage the nagging urge welling up inside of me to run out of the room braying like a donkey. The workshop was very engaging. I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot from it. I really appreciate the workshops my supervisor gives. And I’m not just saying this because my supervisor might be reading this! Ha! The thing is this: fantasies of running from a room like a distressed donkey have of late become a sort of inevitability for me when I feel compelled to sit for even brief periods as an audience member at a talk. I think my tolerance for sitting still and being quiet has diminished rapidly of late with the number of hours I’ve logged at my desk working in isolation on my dissertation.

So, to quell mad-donkey visions, I wrote out the phrase “active listening” down the left side of a piece of paper, which quickly became an acronym for words and phrases drawn out in different styles, now running left to right. The funny thing, though, is that my doodles weren’t exactly on-topic. Instead, it became a sort of half-baked crossword: while part of my attention was focused on the workshop, another part of my brain was busy thinking of the best possible words to fit into my acronym. While on-topic words like “acknowledgment” made an appearance on my acrostic, other words appeared just because I liked them: “egregious,” and “eschatological,” were my favourites. Over a five-minute break in the workshop, a colleague sitting next to me wanted to learn more about my notes. When the session resumed, he joined in: we flipped the page over, and he was soon drawing way better sketchnotes than my own. Again, though, they weren’t all on-topic: he drew a watery moat around the prefix “re” to visualize “remote”–which was on-topic–but he also wrote the word llama in the shape of a llama (!)–which, not surprisingly, was not.  I mournfully rue my unduly precipitous decision to drop that work of collaborative, orange-inked genius into a recycling bin on the way out the door. I wish I could share it here. A llama! A LLAMA!

I think Erica Kleinknecht is right to draw our attention to the important role embodied forms of listening and note-taking play in memory recall. I would even suggest, against the Sketchnotes trend, which seem to all be rather topical–that it doesn’t always matter what you are recording as you hand-write in a class. I learned so much from that workshop I attended, in part because I gave myself permission to doodle. It seems that students can multitask; perhaps they even should multitask, but in ways that involve a level of physical investment.

In other, more straightforward terms: active learning is good.

For more sketchnotes, check out:

Works Cited

Kleinknecht, Erica. “Don’t Forget to Write.” Augsust 21, 2013. Cognitioneducation. Blog.

Weimer, Maryellen. “Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t.” September 26, 2012. The Teaching Professor Blog. Blog.

5 thoughts on “Students Can’t Multitask. Or Can They?

  1. Thanks Lisa, for giving me the benefit of a doubt where other readers have just jumped right into the deep end with their personal reactions. I appreciate your post here and think you’ve hit on some very interesting points. The first I want to follow up on is this (and I don’t think I spelled this out in my own post): humans CAN indeed multitask! We are wired to process multiple sensory inputs at once and can’t not do so. But we do only have a finite amount of attentional capacity. Whether you call it brain space or digit span, the fact remains that there is only so much energy available to devote to the work of memory at any given point in time. Our brain space requires energy to store in mind the information we are working on and energy to manipulate that information. So when our attention is divided to multiple tasks, each requiring some storage and some manipulation, then something’s gotta give, and usually what gives is quality of work, not quantity. With age and experience we can grow our functional brain space, but there are still limits.

    So to your point then, with sketchnotes and other mnemonics in the back of our minds, they key to making the most of a situation is being smart about how you focus your energies. Using the “working memory model” as my guide here, we have two primary components to work with cognitively: a “phonological system” that supports linguistic processing (where auditory and visual information is coded into the language system) and a “visual-spatial system” that supports mental imagery and spatial awareness (locating your body in space and time); as well, these two processing systems can be merged together into a hypothetical brain space called the “episodic buffer” where your linguistic and imagery work combine with your long term memory. When all systems are coordinated and put to the task of comprehending and remembering, then what’s remembered is rich and detailed. But when these systems are not well coordinated, then what’s remembered is not as high a quality. And when systems are fully disengaged (e.g., like when talking on your cell phone while driving) you are quite likely to make mistakes, potentially egregious ones! Key point then — you can multitask, and you can do so well, or you can do so poorly.

    Sketchnotes can work, just like some mnemonics can too (concept mapping, or elaborate visual imagery techniques), because they help your rally your resources all together in meaningful ways. If that llama is connected to the content of the lecture, then that llama can serve as a memory cue later, and that’s the essence of the encoding specificity hypothesis. Sketchnotes and other things can go awry when the multifaceted work you do isn’t well connected though.

    Regarding the recommendation I’ve made about handwriting then, the difference between writing and typing that I see as key to the reading comprehension and memory issue is the degree to which all systems are coordinated AND the degree to which the movement of the body is coordinated with the contents of the mind. Once keyboarding becomes an automatic skill (like riding a bike or driving a car), we tend to drift and think about other things, while our hands mechanically record the verbiage we are either hearing or reading (like talking when driving). When we are writing, it is much more likely that each nuanced movement of our fingers is coordinated with our thoughts. When typing, there’s little variation in what our hands do, that is, when compared to writing and that subtle difference appears to make a difference when it comes to reading comprehension and recollection – at least in the research thus far.

    So sketch away, just so long as you keep it all connected in meaningful ways. When you do the work of making meaning and create a rich set of cues to represent that meaning, then your work will pay greater dividends in the end.

  2. Wow! Thanks so much for the awesome reply, Erica! You write so clearly on such complex topics; I’m especially digging the distinction you’ve highlighted between a “phonological system” and a “visual-spatial system” for encoding memory, or retrieving it, too? Ah… I’m seeing that I’m getting it, but also not quite getting it! I’m looking forward to looking up the “working memory model” in some free work time today. And I’m curious now, too, about other models for understanding how memory functions. Thanks again!

  3. No problem! I just finished a unit in class on this model, so it’s on the tip of my tongue (or finger tips, rather) right now. Glad you found it intriguing. Enjoy your foray into Cognitive Science.

  4. Oh man- what an awesome post, and also awesome feedback!
    Erica (if, as a stranger, I can call you that?) – I really like your bicycle/car example. When I read it I nodded, and thought about how I often spend my daily bike commute thinking about my dissertation, or planning my work day.
    Lisa- Thanks for writing this! I love sketchnoting (especially when I’m tired!), but often feel weird about it for many of the reasons you mention. Instead of being all: “No, really. This picture of a stick-turkey is totally related to your talk on intersectional politics,” I’m going to try to be more like “doodling this llama-bear-pig tap dancing helped me stay focused, so whatever.”

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