Cell Phones in the Classroom
December 3, 2021
The science of multitasking: why frequent phone usage during class is incompatible with learning
In a busy digital age, multitasking has become a common practice among many individuals, including students. However, it is not quite such a productive practice as people might think.
Concurrent multitasking can be specifically defined as performing two or more tasks simultaneously, such as walking and listening to music.
Serial multitasking, also known as task switching, refers to when individuals rapidly switch between multiple tasks, though they only ever perform one task at a time. For example, a student may do a math problem, then check their email and send a text message before they return to their homework.
Both types of multitasking can pose a variety of issues for those who engage in them.
When performing a given task, the brain utilizes cognitive resources, such as attention, in order to fulfill the task. Yet there is only so much the brain can do at once.
“If you are attempting to do two tasks at the same time, you’re going to have to split up those attentional resources, giving less attention to it. So if they are very different tasks that are not very complex, mentally…That might be okay…” said Heather Johnston, a psychology professor at Columbus State Community College. “Talking while you’re washing the dishes, or watching television while you’re washing the dishes; these are two pretty simple tasks and they’re very different. You might be able to get away with that, but you’re going to suffer some on your accuracy. There may be things you miss that you have to stop yourself and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t hear that.’”
Simple tasks take up less of the brain’s cognitive capacity and therefore have a lower cognitive load, but more complex tasks have a greater cognitive load as they generally require more focus.
Although it might seem like multitasking can increase productivity, attempting to perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously can overstretch cognitive resources and be detrimental to task performance.
“The benefit [of multitasking] is that maybe you can get something, a couple things done at the same time, which feels like you’re being more efficient,” Johnston said. “But if they’re more complicated tasks, your accuracy and your speed is going to slow down if you’re trying to divide your attentional resources.”
Some people opt for task switching as opposed to regular multitasking; however, due to the need to repeatedly switch attention between tasks, research shows that task switching may not be the most efficient.
According to a 2001 study, task switching requires goal shifting and rule activation, and these processes are responsible for “switching costs,” or the amount of time taken to switch between tasks.
Goal shifting is the process of actually changing one’s motivation of wanting to do B instead of A. Rule activation involves turning off the “rules” for one task and turning on the “rules” for the next.
Switching costs are generally small in the moment, but research has suggested that people can lose up to 40% of their productivity. Additionally, “Brain Rules” by developmental molecular biologist John Medina suggests that multitasking can increase error rate by 50%.
While research may show that multitasking is not always ideal, there are contexts in which there’s more leeway to multitask.
According to a 2015 study by the University of Connecticut, multitasking while doing homework is asynchronous, meaning a student can stop to do a task such as checking their email, but then they can return to their assignment and continue without missing anything.
However, the cost of multitasking in class is much higher, because switching one’s attention to another task as the teacher continues lecturing can result in missing important information or instructions.
Divided attention is the process of giving attention to two or more sources of information at a time. It can be useful in some situations, but it is not entirely compatible with the learning process.
Encoding is the initial learning of information and the first stage of memory, though information processing varies depending on the context of the situation.
Automatic processing is done without conscious awareness, such as knowing what you ate for breakfast. Effortful processing requires conscious and active attention in order to encode information.
In the classroom, effortful processing is necessary for students to learn and store information for later retrieval. Attention enhances the processing of the attended information, but as a limited resource, people can only pay attention to so much at a given time.
Besides splitting attention, multitasking also opens the door for students to become mentally sidetracked. The concept of “task-set inertia” refers to the idea that when attention is diverted from the main task, there’s a tendency for cognition to remain with the secondary task. This can also be called attention residue.
According to a 2011 study, the possibility that students will engage in secondary tasks unrelated to school during class is increased through a combination of availability, perceived ease of use and wide range of activities accessible through digital devices.
However, some students, like senior Noah Saito, say multitasking isn’t for them.
“I don’t really multitask at all,” Saito said. “I don’t see a use for it. I feel like if I just do everything once and well; if I just focus on it and do it well, that’s fine for me.”
In contrast, multitasking is far more commonplace for other students.
“I like to have two windows open at a time. The way my brain works, it just goes back and forth,” senior Gage DeVoe said. “I’ll finish something for one class, then I’ll jump on the other class, then I’ll go back to the other class, and then back and forth until I get it done.”
DeVoe said that although he multitasks a lot, he only tends to switch between different school-related tasks and tries to avoid multitasking in class.
“I usually do my best to stay on topic and actually listen because I don’t really have time not to know what I’m doing,” DeVoe said.
For senior Madi Diaz, who said she has ADHD, multitasking helps her focus during class.
“The only way I’ve figured out I can focus is like if we’re lecturing, I do puzzles [on the computer]…just so I can focus or do something with my hands…” Diaz said. “It’s just something that helps my brain so I can pay attention to [teachers] better.”
According to Johnston, physical activities like doodling or playing with a fidget toy can be beneficial for channelling hyperactivity, especially for people with ADHD, though she notes that something like checking text messages would not be considered helpful.
Unfortunately, media multitasking is a habit for many people in the digital age and research shows that it has a significant impact on the ability to focus.
According to a 2009 Stanford study, people who multitask chronically have more difficulty focusing their attention than those who are less frequent multitaskers. They are also more susceptible to distractions even if the stimuli is irrelevant because they are less capable of filtering it out or paying attention to the relevant information.
To try to combat chronic multitasking, Johnston suggests practicing mindfulness.
“If you are practicing mindfulness, it means you’re in the moment focusing on what’s happening now. You’re not thinking about what you have to do later, you’re not thinking about what just happened,” Johnston said. “You’re not wondering if someone replied on your phone, or if you should check your email or your messages or your snaps or whatever. Mindfulness is about just doing the one thing whatever’s happening right now.”
Although multitasking can often be appealing, it’s not always efficient, safe or appropriate in certain contexts, so Johnston emphasizes the importance of making an effort to be mindful.
“Just be careful because multitasking can cause accidents…And if you’re multitasking in a relationship [and someone] is trying to talk to you and at the same time you’re doing stuff on your phone, you’re not building that relationship. Those connections are suffering,” Johnston said. “So just stop what you’re doing. Try to think to yourself, ‘I need to just do this one thing for a while.’ Nobody’s perfect, so just keep trying.”
Cell phone use contributes to a decline in grades
Many teachers think that students’ dependence on cell phones is an ongoing problem at Hayes.
Trying to teach while students are caught up in their screens can be a very frustrating situation for teachers to work around.
While some teachers discipline students by giving them detentions, others have not given out any punishments and have let the students see how their grades are impacted.
“Unfortunately, the students are pretty much just earning their own consequence of terrible grades or failing the course,” history teacher Greg White said.
While most teachers don’t mind occasional phone usage in class, they do expect students to hold themselves accountable and put their phones away.
Knowing that students are paying attention is a huge part of respect in class.
“For me, a lot of it is a respect thing,” White said. “I’m not on my cell phone when my students are trying to interact with me and I expect the same courtesy from my students.”
Some students are willing to get off their phones for a while during class, but for the most part, even having the phone in their pocket or on the desk can be a distraction for them.
Even for students who are not on their phones during instruction, some still have music playing. Music during work time is a good way to help students focus at times, but it might distract other students.
“I try my best to keep it in my pocket when the teacher is instructing. Sometimes I keep it on my desk because I was changing my music,” junior James Costilo said. “Sometimes [I listen to music] because I can turn on the transparency and keep the music down low.”
Having quiet music or music that is meant to help students learn is a less disruptive way to incorporate music into the classroom. Cell phone use can be incorporated into the classroom without having a negative effect on students and grades.
If utilized correctly, phones can be used to help students learn. Science teacher Riley Jantz said he supports the use of technology in the classroom, but more specifically as a tool.
“It’s a matter of balance,” Jantz said. “We have to learn how to use [phones] as a tool and learn how to not let it consume our lives. Right now, there’s absolutely no balance between those.”Phone usage during class often leads to lower grades and less effort from students. Students rely on corrections and retakes for keeping grades up.
“[A study] showed a clear link between students achieving lower marks in college and just simply having a cell phone on their person,” White said. “I think there’s lots of evidence available that proves that cell phones are a distraction, leading to lower success rates.”
Teachers feel disrespected when they see students on their phones while teaching. The time and effort teachers put into helping students learn is often overlooked by students.
The disrespect from students is frustrating for many teachers to work around, and the respect should go both ways.
Many teachers’ main objective is to get students to realize the problem on their own. They want students to have the power to make their own decisions, but they also have to make sure they are doing their jobs.
“If it continues like this, I would like to do something,” Jantz said. “On one hand, the consequence could be failing the class since you’re not paying attention. On the other hand, there needs to be a consequence for being flat out disrespectful.”