Can Students Really Multi-task?

Students in Computer Lab

A couple of nights ago, as I was falling asleep in front of the TV, I caught part of a PBS program on about the prevalence of electronic devices in our daily lives. The segment I was watching focused on very high-achieving students at MIT and Stanford and their inseparability from their laptops, tablets, iPhones, and other electronic communications devices on campus. As a high school teacher, I was somewhat horrified to see how freely they use these devices in classes, lectures, etc. The assumption is that they are used as aids to note-taking and comprehension. Professors don’t seem to mind these behaviors. What was explained was that in fact, students frequently multi-task during class, performing such actions as checking e-mail, texting, and chatting online. Students were interviewed, and confidently admitted to performing three, four, or more electronic tasks at a time while in class, asserting that their learning was not hindered in any way by their divided attention.
An interview with the professors of some of the multi-taskers, however, revealed that students who multi-tasked in class performed lower on tests than one would expect of a bright student who had been paying attention every day in class. There were also some brain imaging tests performed that showed that multi-taskers retained less than non -multi-taskers. The consensus of professors and scientific researchers seemed to be that multi-tasking interferes with learning. (I sort of went, “Duh.”)