College Students and Multi-Tasking: Can They Listen to You and Take Notes at the Same Time?

by John Soares on September 24, 2009

I’m a big fan of Psyblog, a well-trafficed blog from the United Kingdom that examines recent research findings from psychology.

A while back I read this interesting post about attention and multitasking:

Every day we we are bombarded with perceptions, ideas and emotions and what we choose to pay attention to shapes our lives, it makes us who we are.

Attention is one of the most fascinating and highly researched areas in psychology. Psychologists have found that with training we can perform impressive feats of multitasking, we can divide our visual attention (without moving our eyes) and we are surprisingly effective at picking out just one voice from a multitude.

Seems like when I was a college student I did pretty well at listening to the prof and taking notes at the same time. But it wasn’t always easy. The most difficult experience was my quantum mechanics course at UC Davis when I was an undergrad. The professor wrote equations non-stop on the board while he simultaneously explained them. That was the one class I actually tape recorded, in cahoots with my roommate and pal Sid Taylor. We focused on getting the equations down on paper, and then later we would listen to the recording and try to figure what the hell those equations meant.

I’ve found that I don’t multitask much these days, especially when working on a textbook ancillary. I need to give it my full attention.

Enjoy the Psyblog post, which is actually a listing of several related articles, with links.

And how well do you think college students multitask, whether in the classroom or when they’re listening to their ipods while doing homework?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Margaret September 29, 2009 at 9:09 am

My younger daughter is among the college students that multitask well, probably because she has ben doing it since she was a small child. She was bored with only one thing to do at a time. I think, that like anything else, there is a continuum and a normal bell curve.

I think the median of the bell curve is closer to multitasking for today’s generation than in was for prior ones, but there has always been individual differences.

I grew up with five yourger siblings, and learned to focus on what I was doing and shut out the noise around me when I did my homework or read a book. I had friends with their own rooms who had to have silence to do their homework. There is still a range encompassing both types of people in colleges today.

I also think that many women can multitask more effectivley than most men, because of inherent biological differences. Men tend to be “serial port” and can often focus more intently on one thing. Women are more “multi-port” and are more easily distracted by things around them, because they are inherently wired to monitor their children while they do everything else. Still, every person is unique, and has to find what works best for each of them.


John Soares September 29, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Margaret, you make a very interesting point about women having a biological predisposition to multitasking because they have typically had the primary responsibility for monitoring and taking care of children.

And perhaps children and college students multitask better now because they have in general had so much stimulation around them, at least compared to when I was a kid and in college.

Psychologists say, though, that the brain can only fully focus on one thing at a time. If we try to do two things at once, like write an essay and watch a movie, our brain just switches back and forth between the two tasks, losing a bit of time each time it does it.


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