Multitasking While Studying for an Exam

Given the predilection of students to check devices of various sorts during class, even when there’s a prohibitive policy supported by regular teacher admonitions, it’s not surprising that students do it when they are studying, even when their study is focused on preparing for an upcoming exam. Furthermore, it’s not surprising that regular interruptions during study times negatively affect exam performance. But it’s nice to have the details, like those provided by this study.

The study uses naturalistic investigation, in this case being conducted when students in sections of introductory psychology courses were studying for an exam. After taking the exam they completed a survey in which they reported how long they had studied and how many of 23 different social media and electronic devices they used during the time they studied. Listening to music and watching TV or a movie were included on the list.

The researcher divided the students into groups depending on how long they reported studying; less than two hours were placed in a low study group and more than two hours in a high study group. Students were divided into groups depending on the number of digital media technologies they used: 0–2 were low users, 3–6 medium users, and over 7 high users. The mean study time was 120 minutes (SD = 83.07), and the mean level of multitasking was 4.88 (SD = 2.94). The mean exam score was 7l.81 (SD = 13.28). Do note that while preparing for this exam during that two-hour study window, students used five different technologies in addition, one would assume, to their textbook and class notes.

As for the results, the low-level media multitaskers had a mean exam score 4.74 points higher than the high-level media multitaskers a statistically significant difference. Students in the high study category also had higher scores on the exam than those in the low study category, and those scores were statistically significant, as should be expected. The negative impact of multitasking on exam scores is consistent with many other studies, although most of them looked at multitasking during actual class sessions rather than out-of-class study times.

“Results also indicate that the level of media multitasking did not significantly affect study time. Students averaged 2 hr [sic] of study, and even if they multitasked with many different digital medias, [sic] the amount of study time was not adjusted to compensate for possible distractions” (54). At this point the researcher references findings from an observational study in which students switched tasks every six minutes (six minutes of studying, six minutes on Facebook, for example). If that were the case with this cohort, they would only be spending 18 minutes of every two hours on the primary task of studying for the exam.

The caveat here is that in this research students self-reported both the amount of time they studied and the number of digital media they used. There is some research indicating that students overestimate their use of some social media. The results of this study may not be as dramatic as they appear.

Most faculty find it frustrating to try to keep students off their devices during class, and there’s pretty much no hope at all of controlling what they do while they’re studying. But as this researcher notes teachers can and should make students aware that this shifting from one task to another has costs. (They’re called “switch costs” in the research.)  Efficiency and performance are both affected. In this study exam scores were lower, and most students do care about their exam scores. Teachers can also focus on skills associated with self-regulating while studying as well as model or provide in-class experiences that showcase the effectiveness of evidence-based study strategies.

A side benefit of this article are references to any number of amazing details regarding multitasking and digital technologies. Here are two examples.

  • Thirty-nine percent of all college-aged digital natives report they are unable or unwilling to go ten minutes without checking digital media.
  • University students exposed to both internet content and a TV switched their attention between them more than four times a minute, and these participants were mostly unaware of their task-switching behavior.

Reference: Patterson, M. C. 2017. “A Naturalistic Investigation of Media Multitasking while Studying and the Effects on Exam Performance.” Teaching of Psychology 44(1): 51–57.

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