Cumberland Times-News

Bob Doyle - Astronomy

March 24, 2012

Does multi-tasking degrade learning?

2012 —  A few weeks ago, I watched a special documentary on Maryland Public Television called “The Distracted Mind” featuring Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a physician and neuroscientist who runs his own laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco.

Dr. Gazzaley hoped to study memory but realized early that distractions and interruptions had a major impact on recall. You can watch the a brief trailer of this program at www.youtube.com/watch?V=UDgcTHohnCw .

 Dr. Gazzaley started his research with a series of experiments using a sequence of visual displays with or without background sound.

The subjects tested ranged in age from adolescents to senior citizens. In one memory test, subjects watched a sequence on a screen of alternating human faces and natural scenes.

The object was to remember only the faces or only the natural scenes. (What was not to be remembered served as the distraction.)

The younger subjects were more successful in recalling the desired images. The older subjects were more successful in recalling the images that were to be ignored.

Gazzaley also found that those who played active video games were better at recalling images with distractions. Dr. Gazzaley’s lab developed a non-violent video game for non-game players to enhance their concentration against distraction.

This does improve a subject’s success in recall, particularly among the younger subjects, less so with older subjects.

 When I watched “The Distracted Mind,” the most compelling parts were Dr. Gazzaley’s interaction with his audiences (one a high school class and the second an audience of adults).

A majority of both audiences showed a prevalence of people who often “triple task,”experiencing three different media (such as texting, emailing and selecting music to play in the background).

Those in the highest third for multitasking are less able to remember material at the same level of distraction than the middle and lower third for multi-tasking.

 What concerns me about multi-tasking is that students who are “habitually wired to several different media” are likely to have low quality attention and find it difficult to learn.

I had an argument with a fellow Frostburg State University staff member over advising students not to listen to rap music when they study their college courses. (I said that listening to such intrusive music is a bad idea; the other person said they should listen to it since they are used to it.)

I can’t imagine how a student talking on a cell phone or listening to their mP3 device can write a good English essay or solve physical science math problems.

 I believe that the inattention induced by multi-tasking follows students into the classroom.

Since many students are multi-taskers for half of their waking hours, going to a class to listen to a teacher, class discussion, observing a demonstration or a video (just one thing) doesn’t engage their minds in the same way.

So many students leave a class feeling bored. When their minds don’t have to bounce around from one thing to another, it may seem less exciting or stimulating.

 What can be done? I feel the problem starts with most students coming to class unprepared, not having done the assigned reading. Then they quickly become overwhelmed and may recall a recent engaging cell phone conversation with a friend, or prospective friend or even an argument.

My strategy is to give each student a class worksheet with the essential information on it, where the students are to answer questions, some of which involve numbers or applying a principle to one’s own life.

For some of these questions, I solicit what answers some of my students have put down. I don’t tell those students if their answers are correct; but I congratulate them for their input.

The remaining students can listen to their classmates and perhaps select what they have heard or put their own answers down in the answer slots.

At the end of the class, the students turn in their worksheets, which are graded. I add my own corrections and pass back these worksheets within a class or two.

Does this approach work? I’m not satisfied with what learning I see, so I have some more innovations to try the next term (which for me will be summer classes).

SKY SIGHTS THIS WEEK: Early this evening, look for a narrow crescent moon at 9 p.m. low in the west. The bright planet Jupiter will be just to the left of the moon. Tomorrow evening, you will see a crescent moon to the left of the brilliant planet Venus.

On Tuesday, the planet Venus will be at its greatest angle from the sun. On Thursday, the planet Venus will appear half full through a telescope. This Friday, the moon will appear half full and at its best for spotting the craters and mountain ranges through binoculars held steadily.

LAST HOOFED ANIMAL PROGRAM: Today at 4 p.m. in Compton 224, there will be the final presentation of “Hoofed Animals of Northern Lands.” The program starts with a review of sky events in March and April.

Then a selection of hoofed animals are discussed including a variety of Deer, one American Antelope and two Bovids (includes Ox, Cows, Sheep and Goats).

Lastly, we go to the Science Discovery Center where we meet these animals face to face. (Taking photos is a good idea, particularly if you bring youngsters to the program.)

Next month’s presentation will be “Predators of the African Plains,” also at 4 p.m. on Sundays in Compton 224. (No program on April 8). Enter Compton via 2nd floor entrance that faces Old Main and older dorms.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.

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Bob Doyle - Astronomy
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