Multitasking Makes Students’ Lives Easier, Hinders Productivity

By Lauren Fetter and JD Allen

Homework. Textbook. Laptop. Internet. Open tab. Google Drive. Open tab. YouTube. Search. Cat videos. “Keyboard Cat.” For many students at Stony Brook University, multitasking while studying or completing school work is a norm. But are these Seawolves hurting themselves by performing more than one task at a time?

According to research done by Psychology Today, only 2 percent of people can effectively multitask. The other 98 percent can cause more harm than good for themselves* by doing multiple tasks at a time.

“There’s abundant evidence that our brains, particularly in any executive function, don’t divide attention,” Roberta Richin, an instructor of social entrepreneurship at Stony Brook University, said. “You can’t divide attention. It’s why nobody’s dunking a basketball and taking a selfie.” 

Richin teaches her students that a classroom is a team, adding that if students can pay undivided attention to a screen, they can pay undivided attention to another activity, as well — though paying attention to a screen or a page of a textbook can be a challenging task for some students.

Charles Calderwood, an associate psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, lead a study on media multitasking behaviors, which are the frequency and duration of distractions, as well as the types of media used while multitasking among college students. The results: College students are no exception to Psychology Today’s research. Multitasking is a feat students attempt often, but rarely succeed in.

During the weeks leading up to finals, students at Stony Brook University continuously struggle with balancing their hectic workloads.


Ryan Sullivan, a junior studying biology and sociology majors, said that although he recognizes the importance of good studying habits, the ability to multitask is readily available to him. While monotasking is realistic — stressing that he is actually capable of completing only one task at a time — he couldn’t see finishing all he is required to, Sullivan added. 

“You have so many things going in your life at once, its really hard to focus on one thing.  Sullivan said. “I think it takes a bit more dedication than what I have.”

Sullivan is like many other college students: He is taking five or six classes, he works one or two jobs and he has a family, friends and clubs that he needs to balance his time between. Study time sometimes is not his main priority, he added.

Sullivan said his normal studying habits include reading his assignments before class and reviewing lecture slides and videos, but he is often distracted by his Facebook newsfeed and Reddit posts. Sometimes his procrastination lands him playing video games, he added.

Richard W. Patterson, a doctoral student at Cornell University studying policy analysis and management, performed a study to see if software could be used to reduce student procrastination levels, thus increasing their school performance.

“In environments such as online education, where behavioral factors are likely to keep people from following their plans,” Patterson wrote in his 2014 article, “Can Behavioral Tools Improve Online Student Outcomes? Experimental Evidence from a Massive Open Online Course.” “Interventions such as commitment devices and reminders may significantly increase plan completion and improve well-being.” 

According to the Virginia Commonwealth University study, sixty undergraduate Georgia Institute of Technology students were given three hours to complete homework, which were student-supplied assignments, in three different subject areas. The students were recruited through flyers posted on campus, as well as by their professors. All participants who were recruited by in-class announcements were offered extra credit in their undergraduate psychology classes.

In a laboratory setting, which was designed to mimic a work study station, students were instructed to “do your homework as you would anywhere else,” according to the Elsevier Science journal article, using any supplies at their disposal. Tools included their laptop, mp3 or CD players or other audio materials and a cell phone to the study. Participants were also able to use an Internet-connected desktop computer and a printer that was provided by the study for the students to use during the session. Students were allowed to leave the room for a bathroom break by first removing any apparatus, or to eat or drink in an area away from the computer. All study habits were recorded in variety of ways including eye-tracking software.

The problem that arose for many of the students were the many distractions at their fingertips. In addition to listening to 73 minutes of music while studying, which is a factor whose effects are unclear causing either increased or decreased focus, students averaged 25 minutes of total distraction time on unneeded sites or completing unnecessary studying tasks.

“Higher homework task motivation and self-efficacy to concentrate on homework were associated with less frequent and shorter duration multitasking behaviors,” Calderwood wrote. “Greater negative affect was linked to longer duration multitasking behaviors during the session.”

Richin, the co-author of “Connecting Character to Conduct: Helping Students Do the Right Thing,” explains how test preparation and academic rigor alone cannot help students, and that a safe environment, which is produced by instilling a connection of a student’s character to their conduct, is conducive to learning.

“If students can’t spend a half hour working with somebody else without distracting themselves electronically, how are they going to get through an interview? How are they gonna get through a team meeting where they’re accountable for the output?” Richin said. Some students do not realize that the habits they form in college can impact their work later on, she added.

Monotasking: For Students, By Students from JD Allen on Vimeo.

Richin said she tries to prepare her students to operate the classroom like they would a baseball team. Teamwork is a task that requires interaction and a lot of communication, she added.

“So if I’m in the outfield, or somewhere else, I’m not entitled to suddenly take out my phone and start doing something just because, in that moment, I’m not completely engaged,” Richin said.

Teamwork is a leading competency in our work environments, as well as in our communities. Page Keating, a sophomore at Stony Brook University studying biology and sociology majors, said that multitasking is inevitable because people are expected to do things quickly. She added that she is often pressured by others to change her task.

“It’s hard for people that are expecting that email immediately to understand that you’re doing something else at the same time,” Keating said. “If we all start monotasking, maybe it will be simpler to do it, but the fact that we’re expected to do things so quickly, that’s why multitasking is so popular amongst all of us.”


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