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SPARK: Multitasking

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Multi-tasking as a Student

Multi-tasking is the term commonly used for being engaged in two or more different activities at the same time, usually referring to activities using devices such as cell phones, smartphones, computers, and so on. Many people claim to be able to do as many as four or five things simultaneously, such as writing an email while responding to an instant message (IM) and reading a tweet, all while watching a video on their computer monitor or talking on the phone. Many people who have grown up with computers consider this kind of multi-tasking a normal way to get things done, including studying. Even people in business sometimes speak of multi-tasking as an essential component of today’s fast-paced world.

Why the Human Brain Can’t Multi-task

In the following video, author Nicholas Carr explains why multi-tasking is difficult and interferes with our ability to learn. (Length: 2:39)


Multi-tasking or Alternating Between Tasks?

“Okay,” you might be thinking, “why should it matter if I write my paper first and then answer emails or do them back and forth at the same time?” It actually takes you longer to do two or more things at the same time than if you do them separately—at least with anything that you actually have to focus on, such as studying. That’s true because each time you go back to studying after looking away to a message or tweet, it takes time for your mind to shift gears to get back to where you were. Every time your attention shifts, add up some more “downtime”—and pretty soon it’s evident that multi-tasking is costing you a lot more time than you think. And that’s assuming that your mind does fully shift back to where you were every time, without losing your train of thought or forgetting an important detail. It doesn’t always.

The other problem with multi-tasking is the effect it can have on the attention span—and even on how the brain works. Research has shown that in people who constantly shift their attention from one thing to another in short bursts, the brain forms patterns that make it more difficult to keep sustained attention on any one thing. So when you really do need to concentrate for a while on one thing, such as when studying for a big test, it becomes more difficult to do even if you’re not multi-tasking at that time. It’s as if your mind makes a habit of wandering from one thing to another and then can’t stop.


This page was excerpted from the book Student Success by Mary Shier.