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Online Activity: The Downside To Task Switching


You might be able to convince students they can't truly "multi-task" (can they really watch TV and do homework at the same time?), but I'll bet they're convinced that they can effectively switch from one task to another task very quickly (a little TV, a little homework, a little TV, etc.). Here's an activity to show them that task switching isn't so great either.


Neuroscientist Jared Horvath, in his book, "Stop Talking, Start Influencing" describes a great in-class activity that your students can do online. It's fun, brief, and shows - with data - how task switching actually slows things down because the brain experiences an "attentional blink" - a sort of "mind wipe" between tasks.  Here's the activity:



I've really been enjoying Horvath's book - lots of other great, research-backed suggestions for instructors.


I like to show this in my classes:


And there is a multi-task driving quiz my students take to show how they cannot safely or successfully multitask!


In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the authors recommend using brain science to assign "interleaving," which goes from assigning one learned task to another.  Students don't like it, but it reinforces the learning, long term.


Interesting point @Nicholas. I've read about interleaving and I recommend the strategy to my students. I guess we'll have to point out that interleaving doesn't mean going really quickly from one subject to another. That's probably when the switching becomes detrimental.

Frequent Commenter

I need to check that book out!

Valued Contributor

Great point. I always think that multi-tasking is not always beneficial, especially when it comes to studying. Research shows that it depends to an extent on personality and other cognitive factors. That's what task switching (esp. if these are very different) is also difficult for a lot of people because the attention shift that is called for. 

Frequent Commenter

I did better in the second part of the activity but I think that was more down to having figured out how to do it quickly on my keyboard!  One thing I certainly did notice was that I was concentrating much harder on round 2 and it felt like a more difficult task... I also agree with @Nicholas (and Retrieval practice takes that to an extreme with the interspacing being perhaps days or weeks apart!)