So You Think You Can Multitask?

By Kelsey Mays / Katie Pazur / Hank SamuelsEducation, Cycle 1, 2010



Multitasking, contrary to popular belief, is becoming more and more of a problem in today’s college classrooms. As the prevalence of personal technology becomes more obvious, so do the consequences associated with it. Traditionally, multitasking was simply defined as “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time” (Miriam-Webster Online). Through recent studies focusing on college students, multitasking has been redefined based on the capabilities of these personal technologies. In this article, the psychological and social impacts of multitasking are further explored to challenge the existing assumptions many people have about their ability to multitask. As a result of connecting previous research with our independent findings from UNC Chapel Hill, we conclude that, while technology is generally beneficial in the classroom, it poses risks that are too great to be ignored. Through proper education of students and professors, as well as continued research, the problems posed by multitasking can be avoided.


With a test in two days, you are trying to pay attention. You are keeping up with your notes and listening to the lecture, but your phone starts buzzing. Quickly responding to the text from your friend, you look up and realize you have missed the explanation of cellular respiration. You open up a new tab and load Google to look it up. In the process, you realize not only do you have a new email, but that you also have four new notifications on Facebook. Since Google is still loading, you check the notifications and respond to the email. In the time it took to do all of this, you have managed to miss more than ten minutes of the lecture. So you think you can multitask?

Educational institutions in today’s society face many challenges that were not present fifty years ago. Diminishing resources, increases in costs, and larger class sizes contribute to these challenges (Price 17). Fortunately, technology has significantly reduced the troubles that educators have by facilitating a quicker and easier learning process. Educators now communicate with students at the click of a button, and students turn in assignments over the Internet. Perhaps the educational institutions most affected by this new wave of technology are colleges and universities. With the prevalence of technology in the classroom increasing exponentially, its positive effects will be felt for years to come, but there are also many negative risks involved. One of these risks is multitasking.

Multitasking is traditionally defined as “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time” (Merriam-Webster Online). Through recent studies of college students, multitasking has been redefined. This redefinition incorporates the new forms of technology that are becoming increasingly popular on college campuses including everything from Facebook and email to iTunes and mp3 players. According to general assumptions, many college students feel that they have mastered the art of multitasking; however, multitasking is not a talent, gift, or something you can learn to do efficiently. It encourages students and professors to divide themselves amongst different activities with the assumption that by dividing their attention, they are being more productive. Multitasking is shown to produce over-stimulation of the brain making it very difficult or impossible to process everything that is going on (Austin, par. 1). With all of multitasking’s distractions in the classroom, how is learning something new possible?

Through this article, we seek to refute the general assumptions regarding multitasking by informing the public, specifically the UNC Chapel Hill community, of its negative effects. We will present scientific research involving the psychological and social aspects of multitasking, as well as our own research and experiences. By exploring various studies of multitasking in the college environment, we will connect them to real life situations experienced by students. Through this information, we hope to inspire current and future students to consider this research and change their habits in a way that will benefit them in the academic environment.

The Psychological Perspective

Multitasking and the Brain

One of the ways that multitasking with technology affects students is psychologically. Multitasking has recently drawn a great deal of attention due to the prevalence of technology in the classroom, and a variety of studies were conducted that address this specific topic. This is not to say that all of technology’s effects are deleterious; there are obvious benefits to technology and its capabilities, but it has been found to pose a serious obstacle in the learning process.

In a research study performed by Katherine Austin from the Department of Psychology at Texas Tech University, participants were exposed to several different sources of information that included text, narration, or animations in various combinations (Austin, par. 1). The participants in the study were monitored as they were exposed to these combinations and tested on their retention of the information introduced during the presentations. According to this study, participants were better able to absorb information when presented with the combination of narration and animation rather than the combination of text and animation that they found to be distracting. While viewing the text and animation, it was necessary to glance back and forth to get the whole story, dividing the attention of the viewer (Austin, par. 9). This switching of focus resulted in a cognitive overload, which is defined as the limit of the brain to process different types of information (Austin, par. 2). This can be directly related to the concept of multitasking in that dividing the attention in the classroom between the lecture or notes and your Facebook page (or other distractions) creates a limit in your ability to retain all the information.

Another study by Foerde, Knowlton, and Poldrack, from the Department of Psychology and Brain Research Institute at the University of California, found slightly different results but agreed with the overall conclusion of the previous study. In their experiment, participants were subjected to single or dual-task conditions while trying to learn new information. These scholars discuss the specific areas of the brain that are involved in the learning process with specific focus on declarative memory and habit-learning memory. Declarative memory is having the ability to know a piece of information off the top of one’s head; it is forever ingrained into one’s memory and can be recited upon command. Habit-learning memory is different; it doesn’t rely on understanding the concept, just the action or process involved (Foerde et al. 11778). This is similar, for example, to students memorizing information for a test and then forgetting it as soon as they have finished taking the exam. This memorization of information for tests is commonly known as “cramming” amongst students. The conclusions of the study were that accuracy of the information retained was not affected in the different conditions, but dual-task conditions were proven to reduce declarative memory (Foerde et al. 11778). In other words, the participants subjected to multiple tasks or stimuli at the same time couldn’t permanently retain the information presented to them. Therefore, it does not matter whether or not the technology can handle multiple tasks at the same time. The more important question is whether the student can.

Personal Laptops and Multitasking

You may be wondering if this scientific evidence means anything in real-life situations. A case study performed by Eun-Ok Baek and Seth Freehling from the Department of Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education at California State University, San Bernardino, focused on a group of low-income high school students using technology, gives insight into the obstacles multitasking presents when using laptops in everyday classroom settings. It has become a sweeping trend in high schools to assign a laptop computer to every student in the school. This has provided many wonderful opportunities to children who would not have been able to afford them otherwise. Yet, it has also introduced these students to obstacles that they have never encountered before. Usually in a high school setting, technology is not as accessible to the students because the teacher has more control over student uses of technology. This limits the students’ exposure to the multitasking capabilities of their technology. When on their own, this lack of experience elevates the risks associated with multitasking.

According to Baek and Freehling, high school students used their laptops rather efficiently in the classroom but encountered trouble when they used it in their home settings (Baek and Freehling 33). This is probably due to the strict nature of many high school classrooms where technology use is monitored and controlled. For example, most high schools block social networking websites so that students will not be able to access them, thus taking away some of the temptation of multitasking. In addition to firewalls restricting high schoolers’ use of their computer, the smaller class sizes allow for better enforcement of proper online activity by teachers. Most of the evidence allowed them to conclude that the multitasking ability of the computer does help students finish their homework quicker, but it presents a large amount of distractions as well (Baek and Freehling 33). In college, this is different because students are assigned a laptop and they have the power to use it, if and as they wish, in the classroom.

Instant Messaging and Multitasking

In a study of college students’ ability to focus on academic readings in relation to their use of instant messaging, Laura Levine, Bradley Waite, and Laura Bowman, from Central Connecticut University, found that students who frequently use instant messaging to communicate have a hard time focusing long enough to critically read an academic article. They concluded that the inability to focus was due to the rapid fire the brain was used to with instant messaging. The individual was easily distracted because the one task was not enough to keep their attention since they were used to carrying on at least three different conversations with different people simultaneously, all averaging over an hour in length (Levine et al. 562).

We find this to be very interesting because as college students, we use instant messaging a fair amount to not only talk to friends here, but also around the world. We notice that when we do have to complete an academic reading much longer than six pages or so, it is hard to stay focused long enough to read the entire document. While we are a little skeptical on their application and definition of frequent instant messaging, we feel that Levine, Waite and Bowman presented an interesting conclusion on the relationship they discovered.

The Social Perspective

Electronic Communication and Social Culture

Another way multitasking with technology affects students is socially. M.L. Markus, of the Claremont Graduate School, and Sara Kiesler, Jane Siegel, and Timothy W. McGuire, all from the Carnegie-Mellon University, have completed significant research on the social effects of technological multitasking. As mentioned before, instant messaging allows real time conversations to occur between people via the Internet. While the idea of being able to talk to anyone, anywhere, in real time is amazing, it takes away from the personal contact that helps build interpersonal relationships, creating social isolation (Markus 121).

These interpersonal relationships are vital in practicing collaborative work habits and what are generally defined as “people skills.” From instant messaging or emails, tone and body language are difficult to interpret because it involves reading words off of a screen rather than physically being with the person. While there have been developments in this technology (webcams and video enabled online chats), it is still not the same as talking to someone in person.

The professor-student relationship is imperative and should be developed in college through personal meetings and discussions, but is becoming less and less prevalent as technology’s presence increases. Aided by this increased presence, the relationship has transformed into an informal and electronically dominated conversation. This creates setbacks for students who are just beginning to learn how to communicate within different networks of people. There is an obvious difference between the way that one addresses professors versus one’s friends, and in college, these professor-student interactions help the students learn how to appropriately collaborate with the people around them. Since the “hierarchical dominance and power information is hidden” in these types of electronic communication, the social and conversational norms can not be effectively learned (Keisler et al. 1126).

From our desire to be more productive, we have taken interpersonal interaction almost completely out of our daily lives. A sometimes beneficial trip to a professor’s office hours can be arranged via email, an exam study group turns into a Facebook message or an online chat room, and a phone call home turns into a four word text message. While this may be looked upon as a simple, time-reducing plan, it inhibits the face-to-face relationships that are vital on a college campus. Many universities suggest that students take advantage of professors’ office hours because the increased communication not only aids in the mastery of material but also adds to what is presented in class. By not taking these opportunities, students are putting themselves at a disadvantage and creating problems that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Multitasking: A Multitude of Problems

Multitasking is an obstacle in the academic environment because of students’ limited ability to focus on multiple tasks at the same time. The opportunities that technology presents, such as instant messaging and constant communication, also change the way that relationships are developed and social interactions are conducted. For example, professional and personal communication is being mixed (Keisler et al. 1126). This was discussed in the previous section but it may be important to consider the implications of this effect. It is becoming more common for students to use language that is not appropriate for the classroom environment. This can be seen when they are electronically communicating with a professor; students may incorporate informal speech with abbreviations or an informal tone that is often used on social networking sites.

Through our personal research as student anthropologists, we surveyed current students and professors on their in-class and personal use of technology. From this research, conducted by Kelsey Mays, Katie Pazur, Hank Samuels and Will Leighton-Armah, it was determined that multitasking is becoming an increasingly obvious problem on campus. More specifically, we found that 75% of the students surveyed use technology such as laptops, cell phones, mp3 players, etc. for unrelated tasks during class. When asked what these students use their technology for outside of class, one person answered “to survive.” We also found that most students use their laptops as their main form of communication with their friends, family, and teachers. This dependence on technology and prevalence of multitasking hinders the learning environment in such a way that students are not able to learn effectively. Later in life, these multitasking habits will affect a person in professional environments, therefore creating a need to increase awareness at the university level.

What Does this Mean for Us?

Technology plays an important role in our everyday lives. It allows us to communicate with each other, participate in multimedia presentations, and even have web journals like this one. Through the wide range of applications of technology, multitasking presents efficiency-related problems. The easily accessible wireless network here at UNC-Chapel Hill is encouraging students to participate in activities other than paying attention in class. By allowing laptops, teachers are providing opportunities not only for their students but for themselves to be more productive, though it introduces a greater risk of multitasking. When technology is abused, multitasking creates problems both in psychological and social areas. The psychological impact of multitasking proves that human’s brains have a limit to the amount or type of information that they process. On the other hand, the social impact of multitasking has created a barrier between individuals and changed the way we interact and develop relationships.

There are many obvious solutions to these problems such as banning laptops in the classroom and requiring personal technologies to be turned off. This within itself creates new problems, specifically enforcement. Therefore, it may be better to educate students and professors about the problems that multitasking causes. This could be through an orientation session, the information students receive through the CCI (Carolina Computing Initiative) program, or through the instruction of the professor. While these options are likely to be the first that the university thinks of, they are not the most appealing to students and therefore would be less effective approaches. By considering the modern student culture, it would be more appropriate to share the information through creative and popular multimedia such as music videos, documentaries, song, dance, or student presentations.

Through both education and regulation of technology in the academic setting, the consequences of multitasking can, with time, be overcome. In order to properly educate the college community, it is necessary to continue to research and redefine multitasking as technology and its uses continue to evolve. Meanwhile, students and professors need to start becoming aware of multitasking’s dangers and monitor its presence in the classroom. If the assumptions associated with it are never overcome, they will carry into both the professional and social aspects of life, setting students up for potential failure. Through preventative measures, the negative effects will diminish and students will soon recognize the benefits of a more focused academic lifestyle.



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Crenshaw, Dave. “The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done.” The Myth of Multitasking. Silver Planet. Web. 24 Mar. 2010.

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Konijn, Elly, Sonja Utz, Martin Tanis and Susan B. Barnes. Mediated Interpersonal Communication. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

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Markus, M. L. “Finding a Happy Medium: Explaining the Negative Effects of Electronic Communication on Social Life at Work.” ACM Transactions on Information Systems 12.2 (1994): 119-49. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.

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Price, Robert V. “Technology Doesn’t Teach. People Do.” Tech Trends Nov. & Dec. 1996: 17-18. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.


Kelsey Mays / Katie Pazur / Hank Samuels

Communications, Media Studies / Exercise Sports Science / Communications, Afro-American Studies

Kelsey Mays / Katie Pazur / Hank Samuels

Communications, Media Studies / Exercise Sports Science / Communications, Afro-American Studies