"If you want to learn and remember information, not for minutes, but for months or years, you have to focus attention on it."

By Kira Bailey

Kira Bailey PhotoApril 4, 2020
Have you ever watched a show while reading for class? Have you ever listened to a podcast while writing a paper? Have you ever responded to a text on your phone while playing a video game? If you answered yes to any of these or similar questions, then you have engaged in media multitasking, the use of multiple media streams simultaneously. 

We like to believe we are good at doing multiple things at the same time; after all, how would we get everything done in a 24-hour day if we weren’t constantly multitasking?

Unfortunately, many research studies show that memory for one or both tasks suffers when we do them simultaneously. We feel like we can divide our attention successfully, but in reality we are less engaged with each task.

Media multitasking is a ubiquitous form of divided attention that has important implications for our performance.

Media multitasking certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s worth talking about right now when virtually (pun intended) all education has moved online. Focused attention is a prerequisite for learning and remembering complex information. A face-to-face course allows students and educators to help each other focus attention, and educators in particular have far more control over the environment. Cell phones and laptops can be banned. When allowed, use of the devices can be monitored. A quick pan of the room can indicate how many students are still focused, and the decision to take a break or change topics can be made on the fly if needed.

It is also important for educators to recognize that students can be interested in a topic and still want to immediately respond to a text or hit that next high score in Candy Crush. While we can help students limit those behaviors in a face-to-face course, we lose some of our ability to help them focus when we are remote.

And it isn’t just students that need the help! As I write this, I have six other tabs open in Chrome, none of which are related to each other and all of which I am attempting to monitor simultaneously. Every single one of us is vulnerable to the draw of media multitasking.

There is a lot we still don’t understand about the brain and attention, but here is something we do know: If you want to learn and remember information, not for minutes, but for months or years, you have to focus attention on it. The danger of media multitasking is that it divides our attention while giving us a false sense that we are still engaged. Students and educators will do well to keep this in mind while we are remotely learning and creating content. 

This lesson applies to all of us in every context. How often do we continue scrolling through Facebook or watching a show or responding to texts when there is a human being talking live right in front of us?

To be fair, there are times when tasks just need to get done well enough and dividing our attention is okay. But if it’s something (or someone) that requires your best performance or might be really important to remember later, then it is worth giving it your focused attention right now.

Kira Bailey is an assistant professor of psychology. She studies the effects of video games on emotion and cognition.