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Media Multitasking: The New Marshmallow Test

In a Slate article, Annie Murphy Paul describes the growing concern, backed by new research, that students retain less information when they engage in media multitasking during learning. And with the prevalence of mobile devices and increased access to the Internet, students are doing more multitasking than ever.

Paul cites a recent study by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills, in which researchers watched 263 middle, high school, and college students doing homework for 15 minutes. She explains:

Although the students had been told at the outset that they should "study something important, including homework, an upcoming examination or project, or reading a book for a course," it wasn't long before their attention drifted: Students' "on-task behavior" started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent only about 65 percent of the observation period actually doing their schoolwork.
"We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching," Rosen says. "It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices," adding, "It was kind of scary, actually."

Paul goes on to say that older students, especially college and post-grad students, are multitasking—texting, emailing, using social media, and surfing the Internet—during classes as well at home.

The major problem with such multitasking, as David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, states in the article, is that "under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time." You may be able to fold laundry and listen to the weather on the radio, he says, "but listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex."

The result of trying to multitask while doing homework? Paul says researchers "have documented a cascade of negative outcomes," including that the work takes longer, is more likely to have mistakes, will not be remembered as well, and whatever is learned may not transfer to other tasks. In all, Paul writes, learning will not be as deep.

Remember the famous "marshmallow test" from the 1960s, in which students were told they would get two marshmallows if they resisted eating one immediately? According to that long-term study, the kids who could delay gratification with marshmallows turned out to be more successful down the road by a variety of measures than those who could not. Media distractions may be the new marshmallows, poses Paul. In separate Rosen study, students were sent text messages as they watched a video. Those who answered the texts right away scored much worse on a test about the video's content. So Rosen extracts that those students who can learn to ward off the siren call of the smartphone—and they can learn this, he emphasizes—are likely to perform better than their peers.

Teachers: What's your takeaway here? Do you think you can teach students the importance of delayed gratification—and help them practice it in terms of media use? Or given the ubiquitous access to distractions, are students simply going to do what they're going to do? And what effects have you noticed?

(Full Disclosure: In trying to write this blog post, I've checked my Facebook, Feedly, email, gchat, and Twitter several times each, and taken a phone call from the auto repair shop. Needless to say, I'm not convinced this is simply a student problem.)

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