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The detriments of multitasking

A recent study from Rutgers University finds that the use of personal electronic devices during lecture—when used for activities unrelated to the classroom—negatively impacts students’ grades.

Professor Arnold Glass has been teaching cognitive psychology for over 40 years and has long been an advocate of technology in the classroom; however, while he continues to embrace learning technology, laptops and cell phones are no longer welcome in his classroom during lecture.

Over 60 years of empirical studies conclude that dividing one’s attention between two tasks results in reduced retention. However, Glass notes that many recent studies on student use of personal electronic devices in the classroom and assessment performance are correlational at best; while they demonstrate that students who multitask perform worse on assessments compared to their peers, they do not prove that it is the act of multitasking which causes diminished performance.

To demonstrate causation, Glass and his teaching assistant Mengxue Kang conducted a study measuring a class of 118 psychology students’ performance against themselves. Personal electronic devices were forbidden from the classroom for every other lecture held throughout the semester; proctors were in class to enforce rule.

Throughout the semester students were assessed with daily quizzes, midterms, and a final exam. Evaluations were lower for all students on material covered on days that allowed the use of electronic devices.

Glass’s findings demonstrate that use of personal electronic devices during lecture has significant effects on students’ long-term retention of class material. Despite these findings, Glass acknowledges that requiring students to put away their devices for the entirety of a lecture is an uphill battle, particularly for non-tenured instructors who worry about the impact such policies will have on their student evaluations.

While it is empirically true that multitasking is detrimental to student success, the challenge remains in finding effective and reliable ways to focus student attention.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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