Important research compiled on the effects of students multitasking while learning shows that they are losing depth of learning, getting mentally fatigued, and are weakening their ability to transfer what they have learned to other subjects and situations.

Educators as well as students have noticed how schoolwork suffers when attention is split between homework and a buzzing smartphone. Many students, like Alex Sifuentes, who admit to multitasking while studying, know the consequences well. “When I was grounded for a couple of months and didn’t have my phone, I got done extra early with homework,” Sifuentes wrote in response to Annie Murphy Paul’s article, “How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn?

Parents also see a big difference in their kids’ studying habits. Jenifer Gossman reported that her 17-year-old daughter asked her brother to hide her phone so she could study for several important exams. After hours of studying, Gossman’s daughter reappeared, amazed at how productive she’d been without her phone by her side.

But for many, the solution isn’t simply to do away with the gadgets — mostly because they’re the same tools that actually help do the work, and it can be confusing for young adults to distinguish the difference between work and everything else.

“We have a new problem forthcoming and that is our devices that once were just an entertainment tool are also becoming our educational and work tools,” wrote commenter Des. “And with this all combined into one, it’s hard to put one away without the other being easy to access. With these things being integrated, we also start to lose sight of what is actually work and what is entertainment.”

While some teachers want to remove all digital distractions from the classroom, others say Generation M’s biggest challenges — like giving schoolwork undivided attention — require learning a new set of behaviors that need to be taught and modeled. Besides, tasks like online research, communicating with teachers and other students, and sharing ideas and divvying up work online are mandatory parts of doing school work. So the question for educators is: what to do about it?


At the totally wired, textbook-free New Tech Institute in Evansville, Indiana, high school students are online for all their assignments, working on Dell laptops in 90-minute subject blocks. Principal Michael Allen admits that keeping students simultaneously connected and focused for that length of time has been a big challenge. “It is very hard to manage teenagers with technology for 90 minutes of academic purpose,” he said.

But Allen emphasizes that, when dealing with new and emerging technologies, there will undoubtedly be new and emerging behaviors that will need guidance — a responsibility he believes falls somewhat on schools. Much like Howard Rheingold’s call to name attention as a vital digital skill in his book NetSmart, Allen thinks it’s important not only to teach kids how to use technology, it’s important to show them how to be aware of what they’re doing while using it, too.

Allen recently challenged some of his educators to sit with students and teach them how to watch a video math tutorial, piece by piece: “How do you structure watching a tutorial? How many times do you hit pause? How many times do you watch something before you get all the way through it? How do you put yourself in an environment where you can remain focused?” He hopes that teacher guidance can help shape the new behaviors required of students in the digital age, and that includes avoiding being distracted by texts and Facebook feeds.

“Look, it’s not going away. It exists, it’s permeated every other aspect of their life,” Allen said about teens and tech distractions. “The article is timely and correct in so many ways: multitasking is one of the things that needs to be tackled about tech.”

Thirty-year veteran educator Elizabeth Smith, who teaches AP English at Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, says that over the last decade, teens’ work has changed. “The things that I notice the most are the reduced transfer of knowledge discussed by Poldrack in the article, and the more shallow learning that Meyer mentions,” she said. Smith had a no-tech rule in her class until a few years ago, when school policy moved from prohibiting phones to allowing them in passing periods and in class, with teacher approval. “Of course, this is a constant problem, since they now have them legally at school — their use filters into the classroom.”

In order to maintain student focus, especially during open-book tests, during which many students have the book stored on their iPhone, Smith takes extra precautions. “This is a much bigger issue than ever this year. I have to go around and disable wi-fi (which most of them use) on reading devices,” she said.

But as for the effects of multitasking on her students, as Smith sees it, the problem might be more complex than just teen brains being re-wired by technology interruptions. She also believes that many students aren’t being challenged and engaged enough to stimulate their brains in class. The result is kids who are looking for a welcome, exciting distraction. “I have recently discussed this with my colleagues, and we believe that this is a result of rote learning with much less focus on critical thinking,” she said. “Maybe it is a combination. Perhaps if we were given more leeway at all levels (which I have in my AP class) to teach important concepts in-depth, students would find the learning we are doing more intriguing and would be less likely to head to Facebook for a distraction.”

How will students stay focused? Where will teachers draw the line? For Elizabeth Smith, it’s a no-brainer; even though she can’t enforce it at home, she still has a strict no-tech policy during class. “I prefer talking to my students when they are actually in the room,” she said. “I want my students to boldly take risks. They cannot do this if their ideas come anonymously across an electronic device.”

But even then, students sometimes get distracted. “Students sometimes Tweet things I say in class,” she said, “which, so far, has only been in good humor.”

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  • Devorah Heitner

    I am glad to hear educators thinking not just about blocking kids’ wifi but how to proactively engage them so deeply that the shallow answers won’t work. Getting kids to choose when to unplug or to us productivity software to block distractions is useful as they get to high school and college and need to take matters into their own hands. We should acknowledge our own challenges w/ digital distractions as well.

  • It is interesting to see this dilemma unfold. On the one hand, safety advocates are adamant there is no such this as “multitasking”. Science has proven the brain does not provide equal treatment of all stimuli, therefore we have the problem of texting & driving. The solution is an outright ban on these stimuli. On the other hand, it is increasingly evident the CERTAIN functionality is required of these devices in the classroom. However, for the most part edtech advocates generally don’t advocate the banning of other apps which may be deemed “non-productive” to a given learning activity, arguing these “multitasking” skills need to be developed as life skills. It would seem that ultimately the question of whether or not “multitasking” is possible in the classroom at a level to meet or surpass educational objectives.

  • Thomas

    Alcohol and drugs are here and permeate everything, to paraphrase from the article, but we still don’t let kids do them at school. We need to separate what is good for them from what is not. We should teach kids how to think and have them learn the best way possible. They can then take that gift and apply it to tech tools as their fully formed minds then may see fit. We don’t need to acoomodate this in schools. I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t master tech use on his own, anyway. Once they get the gadget, they run with it. They get plenty of practice on their own. Let’s leave it at that.

    • Jennifer Schwed Rocca

      They learn to *play* on devices on their own. When do they learn to find and evaluate credible online sources on their own? When do they learn to attend a departmental meeting at work and focus on the meeting and not their phone? When do they learn that they can organize and use their tech tools in such a way as to mitigate the constant temptation of distraction? These are skills that many adults are lacking. I don’t want my kids showing up for their first day of college or work having never practiced those skills. Just because they are surrounded by technology doesn’t mean they know how to use it effectively. We’re surrounded by airplanes but I don’t know how to fly one. These things have to be taught.

  • RyanC

    So who sets the expectations? How do we decide what is acceptable? Do we allow texting while driving? Do HS students understand the downside of multitasking (technology access is a drug- we get addicted to the little burst of adrenaline when the phone beeps) within their community? So perhaps we need to educate them and ourselves and set expectations for when and how we use/connect with technology–there is an off switch for a reason! For more on cognitive blindness

  • We need to begin to think about the disconnect between the relevance of past & “traditional” measures of student learning (5 paragraph essays, research papers that rely on prescribed format/library time/etc, chapter/unit tests) and the relevance of what students do or can do utilizing technology (PBL, Community Service, Creating a digital footprint-blogs/social media/etc). Using this frame, it is easy to see how those from a traditional background say that technology distracts. It does distract, but instead of banning it, we need to ask what needs is the “distraction” is satisfying for the student: social interaction, information gathering, engaging presentations, connecting with experts via email/video/text, learning on their own time, etc?
    We also must ask what tools are most relevant to our student’s futures and teach them how to use these tool successfully and in a responsible manner, even if uncomfortable for the adults.
    How quickly we forget the lessons from similar issues we have dealt with in the not so distant past (calculators & word processors anyone???)

    • @BoucherLauren

      Well said. I think simply banning the devices is doing the students and teachers a disservice. I think an opportunity is being missed when we just say, “I’m not dealing with it.” Technology is an undeniable part of our world now, and we have to teach our students the proper use of the technology. Can it be a distraction. Absolutely. So we teach our students how to deal with that distraction and move away from it. From personal experience, I know how difficult it can be to not check my Twitter feed every few minutes. As a member of the 21st digital century, I know that’s a skill I’ve got to master…and so do our students.

  • RHE

    Yes. I teach in middle school, and 12 to 14 year old students do not have the maturity to decide when to use and not use. I am absolutely sure it impairs the development of deep thinking.

  • Laurie

    Very interesting- I might suggest a couple of books to supplement this conversation– The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr and Along Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle. Interesting suff!

  • Lindsey.Day

    I am a middle school elective teacher, and I use technology in the classroom often. I find it hard to keep the students using the technology for educational purposes and not social networking purposes. It definitely impairs the student’s potential progress when they abuse the purpose of technology in the classroom.

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Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey's work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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