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Tuesday, October 06, 2009


As way of background for this month's big question - <Insert link to Big Question>, I went to eLearning Learning and looked up Multitasking.  Found some great posts.  But the basic gist is that

Multitasking Generally is Bad for Work and Learning

Clive Shepherd - A challenge to the multitask assumption tells us:

According to work conducted at Stanford University and reported by Constance Holden in ScienceNOW Daily News under the heading Multitasking muddles the mind, "cognitive performance declines when people try to pay attention to many media channels at once." Clifford Nass, co-author of the study, claims "the study has a disturbing implication in an age when more and more people are simultaneously working on a computer, listening to music, surfing the Web, texting, or talking on the phone. Access to more information tools is not necessarily making people more efficient in their intellectual chores." Also disconcerting, he notes, is that "people who chronically multitask believe they're good at it."

Will Thalheimer - Younger Generation NOT Good at Multitasking Either!

Read this great article in the Monitor on Psychology by Rebecca A. Clay.

It says:

  1. People in general are not good at multitasking.
  2. Young people are no better than their elders at multitasking.
  3. Multitasking actually takes longer. It is NOT a time saver.
  4. Learning done while multitasking is shallower learning, leading not to deep understanding (and flexible mental models) but only to an ability to regurgitate rote information.

George Siemens – Multitasking

A report on multitasking (via Mark Bullen) states “heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set”. BBC provides more commentary.

Ray Jimenez - Over-rated - The Myth of Multitasking

Christine Rosen writes on The Myth of Multitasking,, on the different studies debunking the idea that we learn best by multi-tasking.
"Discussing his research on National Public Radio recently, Poldrack warned, “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”

Doodling and Note Taking is Good

Lars Hyland - Doodling, multitasking and memory

doodling doesn't detract from concentration. On the contrary, a slightly distracting secondary task may actually improve concentration during the performance of dull tasks that would otherwise cause a mind to wander.

I did a cursory summary of note taking and found that most research suggests that effective note taking practices with appropriate summarizing generally results in greater retention.  I didn't find a really good summary of this, so would appreciate any pointers that provides a pretty good summary.


Karen Bowden said...

I just heard Dr. John Medina last week. According to his studies multitasking is impossible. Links are not permitted here but if you do a search for "Dr John Medina multitasking" the first hit should be his blog and a video about it.

Tony Karrer said...

Karen you can put links in using the anchor tag - or at least I can - not sure about everyone. Here's what I found:

The brain cannot multitask

That's great. However, what constitutes multitasking?

Is note taking multitasking?

Is back channel chat multitasking?

Thanks for the pointer!

Taruna Goel said...

What an interesting post Tony!

I think we need to distinguish between 'staying online all the time' i.e. multitasking when working with technology and multitasking in general. Most research points to our inability to be effective when we are working with multiple gadgets – both online and offline.

For example, Dave Crenshaw in his book - The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done - says: "There is an illusion. The illusion is that technology, cell phones, e-mail, faxes, text messaging and whatever is latest-and-greatest all make us more productive. The reality, though, is that these things will only make us productive if we take control of them.”

In his blog, John Medina says "Try creating an interruption-free zone during the day—turn off your e-mail, phone, IM program, or BlackBerry—and see whether you get more done."

Ofcourse if we turn off our gadgets and log-off from all distractions, we will be more productive. So, yes, these statements are true. But by focussing on ‘logging off from technology’ aren’t we limiting the definition for multitasking?

I have no research to back this, but I believe our brain is tuned to some 'level' of multitasking depending on the complexity of the task (whether it utilizes higher order or lower order skills). For example, is attending a lecture and taking notes multitasking? Yes, I suppose and I think many of us seem to do that well and also refer to the same notes later to bring back the session. Similarly, listening to music while driving and also singing along is multitasking in the literal sense.

I don't know if something like this exists but what if I was multitasking to meet a single goal....and each 'task' in my list was to meet an objective related to the common goal. Wouldn't that work?

Also, is multitasking only about a single moment? Can I not plan my day such that I complete multiple tasks but in fixed time periods by dividing my day into three sections instead of switching on and off between tasks after every 2 minutes? Or does this defy the definition of multitasking?

I think we can also multitask using what is being termed as 'Continuous partial attention'. Continuous partial attention is multitasking where things do not get studied in depth. And I think that's possible and works for me when I am attempting to skim through stuff.

Ole Kristensen said...

I didn't quite get it!? Talking to my wife, watching television, reading this post, keeping an eye on Tweetdeck and my Adobe MAX companion to attend the next keynote. But email is shut down so I can focus ;-)

Great post Tony!

Karen Bowden said...

Dr. Medina spoke to us about music and driving. He said this has been tested and the results are mixed. (His hand actually went up and down in a wave-type motion.)

I didn't write down exactly what he said in his speech to our group but the gist was that when we are driving and listening to music our attention is not on the music the entire time we are driving. During parts of the song that we like our attention is diverted, but that could be for just a few moments. At least that is what he thinks is the reason for the mixed results.

I believe he said that no test has been done (yet) on the effects of listening to audio books. I think it has something to do with your ability for imaginative transposition or how good the book is!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Tony!

Scott Flansburg illustrates the true worth of NOT multitasking when getting the best out of thinking and doing. Check out the video. The brain scan says it all.

Catchya later

Tony Karrer said...

@Taruna - I tend to agree with what you are saying based on how I seem to work best. However, I'd love to see the research on it.

@Ole - thanks for the laugh.

@Ken - great video. Took a while (roughly 7:45) to get to the spot, but it's amazing to see how he shuts down everything else to be able to process like that. I'm not sure that works when you are trying to take multiple external stimuli. But I'm sure that there's some element to that.

This is fascinating stuff and really goes to the challenge of effective design.

conduciendoaciegas said...

Really interesting issue, Tony. Just trying to figure out how to shut down my 35-tabs version of Netvibes, maybe I will better understand this article... ;-)

I talked about your overview on "multi-task" for the Spanish audience, in "Conduciendo a ciegas".

My best to you all.


Home Business Leads said...

True, I can't concentrate well when my family watches TV while I'm reading blogs. The sound of the TV itself no matter how low is distracting.