Multitasking and Instruction

Multitasking and Instruction

Multitasking, Task-switching and Sequential Tasking / Sequential Processing

For our purposes, let’s stipulate the following definitions:

Multitasking (derived from computer industry descriptions of processing)  is simply performing more than one task at the same time. It is not the same thing as performing a single complex task made up of smaller sub-tasks, such as cooking.  

Sequential tasking is performing one task at a time, and arriving at a good stopping point before ceasing that work and starting another task. Repeat.

Sequential processing or serial processing is a type of sequential tasking where you specifically perform tasks by starting and finishing individual tasks in the order in which they are received.

In the Army, even when training to actually do multiple tasks concurrently or semi-sequentially, multi-tasking is referred to as, “Doing multiple things badly at the same time.”  

Because that is what it is.

There are Efficiency Penalties for Multi-tasking

Performing one task at a time in order is actually the most efficient way to get things done.

Travis Bradberry writes, “Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.”  

Research conducted at Stanford University by Clifford Nass also found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of external information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one task to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

Dr. Nass studied people who self-identified as having a tendency to multitask.  He asked asked them to rate how efficient they were while multitasking and rate their confidence that their “multitasking skills” enhanced their performance.

His data then demonstrated that multitaskers were actually worse at multitasking than those who typically prefer to do a single thing at a time. Habitual multitaskers were less effective at organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.  And people who are not effective organizers are already inefficient in how they work to begin with.  

It’s All About the Task Switch Time

Regardless of the task, or the attention it takes, it is the “task switch time” that is the factor that truly makes “multitasking” less efficient.  Remove the switches and performance efficiency grows dramatically.  Student instruction, especially, needs to be constructed of mastering simple tasks one at a time.  Switches in instructional programming (or, “transitions”) need to be at logical breaks in instruction, student responses to switches needs to be trained, and teachers need to actively manage them. Like one song quickly fading out… and then - the next one starting right after.

Joel Spolsky is a software developer who studies “task switch times” in both CPU’s and in people. He  has measured how long it takes computers to complete two tasks - one test had them complete a series of programs concurrently and the other test had them complete them sequentially. Even if the processing time was the same, the switch time from one task to another cost so much efficiency that he concluded that the penalties in multitasking almost always made sequential tasking (doing one task at a time in order) the more efficient and effective method to structure tasks for both computers and people.

It bears repeating - the most efficient and effective method to structure tasks is to do one task at a time in a prescribed order.

This of course, is not always possible, but it is always more efficient.

Dr. Sandra Bond Champman, a researcher in learning, reasoning, and decision-making,  calls multitasking “toxic” and writes

The truth is, your brain is not designed to do more than one thing at a time. It literally cannot achieve this, except in very rare circumstances.

Frequently switching between tasks overloads the brain and makes you less efficient. It's a formula for failure in which your thoughts remain on the surface level and errors occur more frequently.

If people are honest, we all know this already - but we tend to want to try it anyway. It seems that there is a natural tendency in some people to keep adding tasks -  as they arrive -  to those tasks that they are already doing rather than sequencing them.  But sequencing is always the more effective and efficient model.

Organizing to Avoid Multitasking in Instruction

In education, there are many ways that we can organize our instructional day to focus our students on the one task at a hand.

First of all, focus our instructional programming to deliver one single standard to  mastery at a time. We introduce complex tasks after mastering the simple ones.

Secondly, don’t insert other tasks, even small ones, into the flow and sequence of instruction. Maintain a singular focus on that singular skill or knowledge.

Third, maintain an organized and orderly classroom with well-practiced routines.

Fourth, work to create an educational environment which minimizes interruptions to instruction so that you can do things in sequence.

Fifth, and most importantly, develop and practice efficient transitions (The “task switch time” of education.)  Switch time is the biggest drag on learning.

Sixth, and most importantly, constantly reinforce and protect the relationship you have with the students who are present in your class at the moment.  Focus on what you are doing with them and don’t interrupt that singular task - even ( or especially!) for interactions with other adults. The relationship between student and teacher is the space where learning happens. When we “switch” our focus in instruction we momentarily sever that relationship.


(Credits to Travis Bradberry,  Joel Spolsky, Clifford Nass, and Guy Winch)

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