We can’t multi-task. Students, parents and teachers need to know this if we’re to use technology effectively.

We all multi-task, many of us for a large proportion of our day. I’m doing it now, in that ‘lesser of two evils’ sort of a way that we do when we assume that putting on classical music will help us to avoid the internet. Students in schools are no different . Although I despise the misleading and inaccurate term ‘digital natives’, there is no doubt that today’s school children are entirely used to splitting their attention between multiple sources. Younger generations report more multi-tasking than their parents’ generation, who in turn report more than their parents1. In many schools, this ‘multiple source’ approach is actively encouraged: in 2014 digital devices were made available in 69% of secondary schools and 9% of schools (including both of my last two) had a tablet device for each pupil2. These figures are only likely to have risen in the last two years. Now of course having a tablet as a potential extra source of information doesn’t necessitate multi-tasking but, perhaps unconsciously, it undoubtedly encourages it. Another source of information is also another potential source of distraction. I remember once being somewhat non-plussed after dropping an uncharacteristically interesting bit of trivia into a lesson (no-one born blind has ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia), only to be met with a student immediately ‘Googling it’; tapping away on an iPad rather than listening to what came next. Just as telling as the behaviour itself was the bewilderment that came from them being challenged; as far as the student concerned there should be no greater illustration of dedication and commitment to the lesson than their periodically surfing the web to fact-check  what was being said.

This is not a blog post against the use of tech in education per se, but if we accept the presumably uncontroversial hypothesis that technology is not a panacea for all educational ills, then it is clear that there needs to be a discussion about where, when and how it is used in order to be most effective. One of the key aspects of this discussion should be around the ability of students (or anyone else, in fact) to deal with multi-tasking, both the temptation of it and the performance of it,  because there is good evidence to show that attempting to concurrently juggle more than one task is at best unhelpful, and often  downright harmful.


There are four key messages from cognitive psychology research into multi-tasking which I think are  important to bear in mind when considering when, where and how to use technology:


  1. We’re generally not good at multi-tasking (although there are large differences between individuals). This is not new information for Psychology; we’ve known for a long time that doing two things at once tends to reduce both accuracy and efficiency compared to doing them separately3. It’s also not a phenomenon restricted to interactions with technology; people have been found to be less able to carry out a task where they have to consider someone else’s viewpoint, if also given a memory task at the same time4. Media multi-tasking, however, is more subtle, as we can be ostensibly doing the same activity (sitting typing at a computer for example), whilst actually engaged in multiple different projects at once. Alternatively we may be doing something task related, but thereby ignoring more relevant information from another source (like my Googling student). A study5 found that participants who multitasked  on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multi-task.  Interestingly, they also found that other students who were in view of the multi-tasking student also fared less well in the test, suggesting that the distraction caused by multi-tasking is not limited to the individual themselves. Another review found that texting in class (even very simple messages) can reduce comprehension of class material at a rate of 10–20%6. When we switch between two tasks, even very simple ones, we also suffer from a ‘resumption lag’ where we take time to get immersed  back in the original task. Not only is this obviously inefficient, but we are more likely to make errors in this period7.The information available to us here is not perfect, especially for those involved in primary and secondary education. A good deal of the research has been done on college students rather than in schools. They have often also focused on more short-term outcomes (e.g. learn a list of words, then do a memory test an hour later), rather than looking for longer term impacts of educational outcomes. Where these more longitudinal studies have been conducted, the results are often correlational, so that we have evidence for a negative relationship between media multi-tasking and academic performance, but no clear indication of which causes which. We should also be aware that there are large individual differences in these behaviours. Although being forced to multi-task seems to have harmful effects regardless of intellectual ability8, higher performing students are likely to be more successful at creating routines and environments where the temptation and ability to multi-task is reduced. One study found that “students at the 25th percentile of distraction duration only averaged 9 min engaged with distractions, and did not listen to music at all. In contrast, students at the 75th percentile averaged 36 min engaged with distractions, and listened to music for an average of 140 min while studying.”10 This perhaps explains why some studies which have examined more direct interventions, such as banning mobile phones from schools, have found significant improvements in exam results , driven primarily by the lowest-achieving students11. This suggests that restricting media multi-tasking could potentially contribute to a strategy for the reduction of educational inequality.
  2. We’ve very bad at judging whether or not we’re good at multi-tasking. Studies which have asked people to rate how good they think they are at multi-tasking have generally found that those who rate their abilities more highly engage in more multi-tasking behaviour. So far so good. The problem is that their assessments of themselves may not be accurate. In fact, individuals who engage more frequently in multi-tasking were found to have poorer performance on laboratory multi-tasking measures, as well as other attention measures12. This may be because they have in effect trained themselves to be unable to ignore irrelevant distractors, by constantly splitting their attention between multiple sources. Some students also seem to possess a strong belief that multi-tasking is beneficial, regardless of any potential evidence to the contrary13 (possibly because of publicity surrounding ‘supertaskers’16, or through modern workplace mythologies about the traits that a successful person should possess). As Brandon Ralph and colleagues put it: “This implies that students who believe themselves to be ‘good multi-taskers’ may be at particular risk of undermining their own academic achievement by using technology”14
  3. We’re very bad at judging how much multi-tasking we actually do. A number of quite entertaining studies have asked people to report how much media multi-tasking they do, whilst also surreptitiously monitoring who much they actually do. As you might imagine, we tend to hugely underestimate the true figure. One study found that the correlation between self-reported internet use time and the real data was 0.31, illustrating a possibly worrying lack on insight into the extent that these behaviours have become part  of the fabric of our lives15. In addition to spending significantly more time on the internet than they estimated, the same study found that over half of the time participants were on the internet they were multi-tasking (56.5%).
  4. Multi-tasking may be particularly difficult for children and adolescents. The social interaction multi-tasking study mentioned in point 1 found that “adolescents are more sensitive than adults to the effects of cognitive load while multi-tasking”4. In other words they are able to multi-task less efficiently, presumably because children and adolescents have less keenly developed cognitive control, the ability to control attention and prioritise information coming in from the environment. This suggests that children in schools are particularly vulnerable to the potential harmful effects of media multi-tasking on learning. Strikingly, the level of distraction experienced by people asked to multi-task has been found to be comparable to that of people suffering from depression. This is not to suggest that there is any causal link here, merely to point out that continually divided attention is not generally a feature of rude  mental health17. Adolescence is recognised as a crucial time in the development of mental health, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to emotional disturbances18. I make no causal claims  here, but if we don’t know how thick the ice is, we should tread carefully.


Some researchers have concluded that the tide is too strong to swim against and that instead of trying to control technology, we need to look to redesign education to work in this brave new world. For example Larry Rosen and colleagues19 in 2010 wrote:

‘‘The bottom line is that our students are multitasking and we cannot stop them without placing them in a boring, unmotivating environment. The trick is to develop educational models that allow for appropriate multitasking and that improve learning.’’

I profoundly disagree with this attitude that is both defeatist and dismissive of millennia of educational progress. Instead I think that we can provide a ‘motivating environment’ for children to learn in (and one which takes into account both the strengths and weaknesses of technology), within our existing frameworks. To do this, however, I think that a much more robust discussion is required regarding when and how technology should be used in education. There may well be cases, such as for mobile phones, where an outright ban may be the best way to entirely avoid the temptation to multi-task. For other pieces of technology, or other situations (such as homework) where monitoring is more difficult, simple strategies are less likely to be effective. Even if we set pen and paper homework, it is likely that music may be playing, a phone and/or tablet or laptop may be nearby, family may be talking downstairs and who knows what else. This is why teachers, students and parents all need to be made more aware of these issues themselves, so that they can work together to create ways in which the potentially revolutionary effects of technology can be felt without the corollaries described above. Of course, for the message to sink in properly, we’ll all need to make sure we’re not multi-taking first. Might be easier said than done.


I am hoping to research student multi-tasking more over the next couple of years, but I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any prior experience  either with multi-tasking specifically or just with technology in education in general. If you are interested in a possible research project on this topic between your school and UCL, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.



  1. Carrier, L. M., Cheever, N. a., Rosen, L. D., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(2), 483–489. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2008.10.012
  2. Clarke, B., & Svanaes, S. (2015). Updated review of the global use of mobile technology in education.
  3. Pashler, H. (1994). Dual-task interference in simple tasks: data and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 116(2), 220–244. http://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.2.220
  4. Mills, K. L., Dumontheil, I., Speekenbrink, M., & Blakemore, S.-J. (2015). Multitasking during social interactions in adolescence and early adulthood. Royal Society Open Science, 2(150117).
  5. Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24–31. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003
  6. Lawson, D., & Henderson, B. B. (2015). The Costs of Texting in the Classroom. College Teaching, 63(3), 119–124. http://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2015.1019826
  7. Brumby, D. P., Cox, A. L., & Back, J. (2013). Recovering from an interruption: Investigating speed-accuracy tradeoffs in task resumption strategy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 19(2), 95–107. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0032696
  8. Ravizza, S. M., Hambrick, D. Z., & Fenn, K. M. (2014). Non-academic internet use in the classroom is negatively related to classroom learning regardless of intellectual ability. Computers & Education, 78, 109–114. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.05.007
  9. Van Der Schuur, W. A., Baumgartner, S. E., Sumter, S. R., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2015). The consequences of media multitasking for youth: A review. Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 204–215. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.035
  10. Calderwood, C., Ackerman, P. L., & Conklin, E. M. (2014). What else do college students “do” while studying? An investigation of multitasking. Computers & Education, 75, 19–29. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.02.004
  11. Beland, L. P., & Murphy, R. (2015). CEP Discussion Paper No 1350 May 2015 Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance.
  12. Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(37), 15583–15587. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0903620106
  13. Carrier, L. M., Rosen, L. D., Cheever, N. a., & Lim, A. F. (2015). Causes, effects, and practicalities of everyday multitasking. Developmental Review, 35, 64–78. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2014.12.005
  14. Ralph, B. C. W., Thomson, D. R., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2014). Media multitasking and failures of attention in everyday life. Psychological Research, 78(5), 661–669. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-013-0523-7
  15. Moreno, M. a., Jelenchick, L., Koff, R., Eikoff, J., Diermyer, C., & Christakis, D. a. (2012). Internet use and multitasking among older adolescents: An experience sampling approach. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(4), 1097–1102. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.01.016
  16. Watson, J. M., & Strayer, D. L. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(4), 479–485. http://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.17.4.479
  17. Bredemeier, K., Berenbaum, H., Brockmole, J. R., Boot, W. R., Simons, D. J., & Most, S. B. (2012). A load on my mind: Evidence that anhedonic depression is like multi-tasking. Acta Psychologica, 139, 137–145. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.11.007
  18. Fuhrmann, D., Knoll, L. J., & Blakemore, S.-J. (2015). Adolescence as a Sensitive Period of Brain Development. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(10), 558–566. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.008
  19. Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2010). Rewired: understanding the iGeneration and the way they learn. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.



We can’t multi-task. Students, parents and teachers need to know this if we’re to use technology effectively.

2 thoughts on “We can’t multi-task. Students, parents and teachers need to know this if we’re to use technology effectively.

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