“Not now Mom, I’m multitasking!”

Tim Van SoelenUncategorizedLeave a Comment


Photo Credit: Brian Smith (cc)

Does this scenario resemble a study session at your house? Kayla is in her room, papers and technology spread across the floor. The Algebra book is open as is the World History text. There is music playing from the iPhone which is wirelessly connected to a Bluetooth speaker on her desk. She is talking out loud, seemingly to herself until you walk over and see Hannah on the laptop screen, courtesy of Facetime.

I am not sure if this is the norm, but it is the preferred mode of study for many teenagers today, mine included—and I am not arguing that it is wrong. Maybe the protocol of all the kids doing homework around the kitchen table with Dad or Mom keeping each on task was not as effective as we once thought?

Author Stephen Chew does not argue for one scenario or the other, and in my thinking, rightfully so.  We understand that each of our students, uniquely created in the image of God, will have a preferred mode of study that best fits their favored learning style. Instead, Chew, one of the authors in a free ebook entitled Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum, shares four false impressions that have developed in the mindset of most students. These mistaken beliefs are as follows:

1)  Learning is fast. Schools can take much of the credit for this misconception due to the massive amounts of reading assigned and the pace required to complete these tasks. Rarely do we ask students to re-read a chapter in an attempt to develop deeper comprehension. The typical student will many times wait until the exam to cram the reading in, allowing little time for comprehension (which, by the way, there are no known shortcuts for!).

2)  Knowledge is composed of isolated facts. How many times have you helped your child memorize key definitions, the periodic table of elements, created vocabulary note cards or mathematical flash cards…in isolation of other concepts? While these methods are of value for rote memorization, think how valuable they become when students connect facts to one another (e.g. mathematical fact families or inverse operations) or to other concepts (e.g. the elements that make up a compound). Try laying them out on the table and seeing what connections your student makes, along with the memorization process that happens.

3)  Being good at a subject is a matter of inborn talent rather than hard work. Somehow, this message is communicated to our students during their school years. As a professor of math education, I have seen this each semester when students preparing to become elementary teachers enter our classroom. “I’m sorry, professor, but I am not good at math. I think I am genetically predisposed not to understand it!” was by far my favorite response from one student. Another educational researcher, Dweck, states that this is the difference is between a fixed mindset (“I’m bad at math but good at reading.”) versus a growth mindset (“I have to work hard at science but I’ve spent a lot of time on math so it comes easily to me.”). Students with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges, put less effort into subjects that should be easier for them, and cope poorly with failure. Students with a growth mindset working towards mastery are more open to critique, and more likely to push through tough circumstances.

4) “I’m really good at multitasking, especially during class or studying.”  Multitasking, as Chew defines it, “is the curse of the connected, digital world.” As students, and adults, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we can divide our attention and perform at a high level for each task. Our ability to focus and concentrate our attention is significantly and negatively affected when it is split between tasks, whether that is talking on the phone while driving or doing homework while listening to music. So, while my daughter is refusing to admit it, her ability to perform more than one task will never be as effective as it would if she would completely focus on one task.

There are two other interesting issues that researchers have also identified when it comes to multitasking:

       Issue 1: Inattentional blindness. As you might have already inferred from the term, this is when attending to one object in a scene diminishes our ability to see additional objects. Maybe you are familiar with the work on selective attention by Chabris & Simons and their invisible 200-pound gorilla experiment (check out the video here).  It is a great example of not knowing what we missed because we believe we have not missed anything. Inattentional blindness happens to students when they allow themselves to be distracted or have their attention divided from the task. They miss things that they are not even aware were present.

       Issue 2: Attentional blink. I live in a rural area where at times we joke about the fact that you had better not blink or you will miss it (it referring another city/town that you might drive through). Attentional blink is a term that describes the fact that switching our attention is time-consuming and takes effort. We need time to refocus on the material when we take a break from it. And, it takes effort to refocus. There are certainly times when students need to “blink” and take a break from their tasks but there really is no such thing as a momentary distraction.

Helping our students study well takes a community—parents, teacher, siblings, and friends. When students are able to realize such misunderstandings they might have about studying, they become better learners and come closer to fulfilling the call that God has for them as students and disciples of His Kingdom.


  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

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