Multitasking and Cognitive Learning and retention: A Students Guide

Multitasking, we all do it, in our busy lives it is a way to seem productive and use our time effectively, but is it really getting the job done, and how is access to technology especially social media affecting our attention to our work. To discuss this I will highlight some of the results found by psychologist and provide you with a few steps experts insist is effectively using multitasking, especially within learning environments. So sit back, grab a cup of coffee and pay attention, because it could save you hours a week. As you are reading this, right at this moment you are probably engaging in multitasking, from listening to the radio or a music video, thinking about lunch or what you’re going to do tonight, checking Facebook or even messaging a friend. Multitasking is a necessity for many aspects of daily life, but it can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the context in which it is used. Driving a car for example is a good use of multi-tasking as it requires the driver to simultaneously scan for hazards, maintain speed, obey road rules, recall and decipher road signs, which are all part of what neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley defines as ‘automated multitasking’; the process of doing many simple and repetitive tasks at once with ease.


However more complex task such as studying or being involved in critical thinking requires more attention and herein lays the problem of multitasking. While multitasking is beneficial in the mundane and simple daily tasks, when it comes to complex tasks that demand our focus and are of high priority multitasking can be detrimental; thus neuroscientist advise that these tasks should be performed in isolation.

“ the true art of memory is the art of attention. No man will read with much advantage, who is not able to evacuate his mind, if the repositories of though are already full what can they receive? If the mind is employed on the past or future the book will be held in vain.” Samual Johnson 1759

With the emergence of social media and Web 2.0 scientist have found that 95% of people have become involved in ‘obsessive multimedia frenzy’ (Rubenstein 2001, p. 764) in which we expect responses to be immediate and productivity to be continuous, thus people even check their emails on vacation or on dates. In order for our brain to function efficiently on these complex tasks we need to minimise the distractions as much as possible; and in no area is this more important than learning.

This week my parents had an argument with my 16 year old brother about using social media and other media devices whilst studying for his upcoming exams, explaining that it is detrimental to his learning, I found this interesting and it seemed quite fitting to investigate this aspect for this week’s blog. Studies conducted by Gay and Hembrook (2003) have found that 12 to 20 year olds retention and memory recall decreased significantly once a second complex or several simple tasks were added, to the primary task which was to absorb and recall information discussed in a lecture.

Their research and findings indicates that our ability to effectively multitask when learning is at best limited and at worst virtually impossible (p. 3). Our brains are highly sensitive to noise and distractions and multitasking makes the memory and recall part of our brain, the frontal cortex unable to effectively do its job; the research suggesting that multitasking might even decrease productivity in this area of the brain by 20 to 40% (Gay and Hembrook 2003, p. 7). The introduction of additional visual and auditory information introduced by students who used a laptop during the lecture wether it was used by ‘ontaskers’ (view lecture related content) or offtaskers showed evident decrease in recall of lecture content. Figure 1: Results of students using (open) and not using (closed) laptops during a lecture. Study conducted by Gay and Hembrook

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Social media and texting while learning according to Rubenstein is even more detrimental to detrimental to short and long term memory as these complex tasks require all senses and emotions to decipher as posed to the previous study I mentioned which required only attention and reading of additional information. Texting and social media Rubenstein states require users to use “their inner ear, inner eyes and inner speech to imagine the other persons response and decode the message” (2001, p. 791).

Why do people still multi task if studies show that it is ineffective reduces productivity well Gazzaley suggest the lure of multitasking lays in its flexibility, it introduction of fresh perspectives and variety, the use of downtime more effectively, but more importantly it’s more fun.

So here are some tips for students trying to study or engaging in any learning activities:

  •  Dedicate study time without distractions (this produces better learning)
  • Don’t multitask while studying as this will produce poor studying habits and affect future learning
  • Power down all devices and focus on the task for 45 minutes out of each hour and reward yourself with a (ONLY) 15 minutes break each hour.
  • Schedule studying time when there is no external distractions (your favourite show is on, your family is eating dinner) as the thought of the missed out activities will distract you

Thank you for your attention and all the things you didn’t pay attention to!


Gay, G & Hembrooke H 2003, The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments, in Journal of Computing in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 1, pp 1- 19

Rubenstein, J.S 2001, Exceutive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching, in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 763 – 797

Schoolatoz, 2014, Homework and Multitasking can it be done, accessed on 11/07/2014,


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