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Research: The Proof is In! Multi-Tasking in Class Reduces Test Scores

Contrary to what students might like to think, when they multi-task in class on non-academic activities, their test scores go down. And that's true for even the smartest students. Those are the initial results of a $439,000 study by a Michigan State University research project that was reported on in the September 2014 issue of Computers & Education.

Some faculty have long complained that they have to compete in the lecture hall for the attention of students who are busy texting, surfing and posting to social networks. Students have argued that they can do both — play and concentrate — simultaneously. Not so, reported Susan Ravizza, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Control Neurolab at Michigan State.

Ravizza and two colleagues studied non-academic Internet use in an introductory psychology class with 500 students. Their working theory was that heavy Internet users with lower intellectual abilities (defined by ACT scores) would do worse on exams. They found that to be true; these students did do worse. But the same was true for those with higher ACT scores. Both groups had lower test scores.

The results have impact beyond the idea of imposing policies on classroom device usage (an idea Ravizza is opposed to).

The research is actually trying to figure out how "information gains access to working memory through specific brain mechanisms." Working memory is the home for reasoning, math, learning a language and other brain processes that involve integrating and manipulating information stored in memory. The work is exploring how activities in two different regions of the brain work together to allow important information into working memory and exclude irrelevant information from gaining entry.

According to a description of the grant on the National Science Foundation Web site, which sponsored the study, the scientists hope to be able to explain "why unexciting information is more likely to be forgotten, and how attention to distracting information reduces memory performance," especially relevant not just in the classroom but also in the workplace and the car.

Eventually, the researchers may come up with strategies for helping people ignore screen-oriented distractions by educating them on the impact, comparable to on-going efforts to remind people not to text while driving.

Personal responsibility is the way to go, suggested Ravizza. "Students of all intellectual abilities should be responsible for not letting themselves be distracted by use of the Internet," she said in a statement.

She added that it would be "nearly impossible" to try to ban computing devices from lecture halls. "What would you do? Have hundreds of people put their cell phones in a pile and pick them up after class?"

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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