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Multitasking: What a professor knows that students don’t

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Brian Snyder/Reuters

(Read caption) The trouble with multitasking: Computers and mobile devices can both enhance – as seen in this photo of Hannah Steenhuysen taken in her home in Rehoboth, Mass. – as well as distract students from their work.

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A few weeks ago, I noticed that a student was surfing the web during my class. So I asked her to come to my office, where she told me – with admirable boldness – that my efforts to police such behavior were wrong-headed. She had grown up with digital technologies, she said, and she had taught herself to “multitask” efficiently. Who was I to presume otherwise?

“Google ‘Clifford Nass,’ ” I replied. “Just not in class.”

Nass, who died last week, was the great slayer of the modern multitasking dragon. A professor of communications at Stanford University, Nass showed that people who did several things at once did all of them worse that those who focused on one thing at a time.

And the more we multitask, he found, the worse we get at multitasking itself. In most human endeavors, practicing an activity makes you better at it. Not so with multitasking: Veteran multitaskers are actually less efficient than people who just started doing it.

Nobody is really sure why. But it seems that multitasking places “switching costs” on the brain: Every time you change activities, you lose time while adjusting to the new task. And doing that over and over again exacts an even greater mental toll.

But here’s the sad irony: We think we’re doing everything really well, even when we’re not. My student honestly believed that she could learn as much in my class while web-surfing as she could without it. It just turns out that she’s wrong.

Ditto for homework, that great bane of American student life: the more digital interruptions that you allow yourself, the worse you do. Indeed, you’re often not studying at all. In a recent experiment observing people doing homework, psychologists found that students only devoted two-thirds of their “homework time” to  homework; the rest was spent on Facebook and other distractions.


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