Attention, Multitasking, Learning
June 12th, 2008

I’ve been engaged in thinking about attention in the classroom for a while. I’ve collected resources, I’ve conducted a few experiments in the classroom. I came across this post on “Multitasking and the End of Learning,” which I thought I’d share. I’m not interested in doing away with Wi-Fi in the classroom — not in the kind of classes I teach — but in engaging students in learning how to train their attention

A few weeks ago, I returned to the classroom of Dennis Dalton, the most important college professor of my life. From the back of an amphitheater seating several hundred students, I realized how much things had evolved at Columbia and Barnard. The lecture hall was now equipped with a wireless sound system, webcams, video projectors, wireless internet. Students were using computers to record the lecture and to take notes. Heads were buried in screens, the tap tap of hundreds of keyboards like rain on the roof.

On this afternoon, April 16, 2008, Dalton was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world.

Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom.

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Thanks for sharing this series, it relates to a post on multitasking with purpose I’ve got to get back to rewriting/writing more about.. .

Thanks for the indirect nudge and the link to Tim and Josh.

Hey Howard.
Here is a piece of synchronicity for you. I decided to try translating a bit of Lao Tzu for the experience. When I entered “lao tzu” in technorati to see what the buzz was on the sage, the first search result was this entry of yours.

Only connect.

Multi-tasking is to learning as snacking is to eating. Slow meals are good, hurried meals are not so good, and constant snacking creates major nutritional problems.

Explain what happened to honest feedback. One of my most vivid memories from the early 70s was very similar. James Reaney was lecturing on Canadian drama and one of the Can Lit team professors observed a similar lack of attention by the students. He stood up, apologized for interrupting the class and vehemently told us we were being stupid and rude and throwing away an opportunity of a lifetime. Often students are rude because they don’t realize there is a proper academic etiquette and that the lecturer has achieved recognition beyond the small academic community they are living in.

5 - Sam Rose

Speaking as someone not terribly far away from the generation that is now in college (10 years away or so) it’s my opinion that the students who aren’t paying attention really just don’t care.

Many are jaded about the relevance of even the best education to what many of them imagine they’ll be doing when they leave school. They think much of it won’t apply, and/or believe that they have little or no hand in changing the nature of things. So, important lessons really don’t mean much to them, because in their eyes, their roles in our society have already been largely laid out for them, so school is just a matter of going through the “motions” to get the degree. (a side note, many of them actually leave school having absolutely no idea whatsoever as to how to seek employment in the areas of they were educated in, even if they do have a degree.)

This is my theory, that these students who don’t realize the wealth in front of them have largely surrendered to their own preconceived notions about what they can get out of education. Let’s not forget that it is often the system of pre-college schooling that taught them to regard education this way. has some rich history and arguments that pre-college schooling plays a large role in helping students learn how to put out a minimum, and believe that they can’t make a real difference anyway.

I think learning to focus is one fundamental way of self-realization that most people are capable of many things. Another thing is helping them realize that things will not stay the way that they are forever, and that the things that happened to other people in other parts of the world in the past could happen to you.

6 - Mable Kinzie

When there were discussions about turning off wifi at the business school here (at UVa, about 5-6 years ago), we wondered what might happen if, instead of preventing on-line access, we tried to channel on-line behavior during classroom lectures in an ed school class.

So in 2004, we ran a small pilot study, in which we passed out handheld computers, and assigned chat partners (1-2 other students) and discussion questions relevant to the lecture. We asked students to engage in chats concurrently with the lecture.

The student cohort (about 19-20 years old in 2004), was able to do this, and the depth of their interactions increased over the short time period of the study (one week to learn the system and two weeks to engage in the chats), but they weren’t comfortable splitting their attention while the lecture was underway. We ended up thinking that on-line tasks that occurred sequentially, rather than concurrently, with the classroom lecture/discussion might be a more productive direction. But…we notice in our teaching that what students are used to doing is changing. It may be that what they are able to do well may also be changing, but this remains to be explored.

Here’s the link to our study article:

7 - Demitroff

As a parent, I need to be convinced by studies such as yours that students are learning while text messaging. If I receive a message from a student during the day, I reply. “Are you in class? I’ll talk later. I’m not a distraction.” In the stone age when we whispered to each other in class, it was about anything but the topic at hand.

8 - Jennifer

While I may not be as educated and seasoned as some of you, I feel I have some insight in this area. Afterall, I am currently a senior at a University. My personal experiences with lecture classes are bad for the most part. I find it increasingly difficult to pay attention to the lecturer, no matter his or her qualifications, simply because I do not learn well from lectures. Many of my classes have computers at our desks, and we are allowed to do the homework for that class, while the professor is speaking. I find this method most helpful, as the subject matter is fresh in our minds and we are there to ask questions of the professor if needed. Simply put, it is extremely convienent.

While it is hard to avoid the temptation of checking email or facebook, or getting the latest news updates, we need to embrace the technology around us. If this means adapting teaching AND learning methods to fit our new technologically advancing world, then that is what needs to be done.

I found this site while doing research for a class of mine. My final research paper is on technology and its impact on college students, specifically relating to disasters/emergencies. I am interested in how the news of such events spreads through social networking sites, and through mass messaging as opposed to the time tested method of TV, RADIO, and PAs.

The students obviously have an energy, some to learn, some to network, nevertheless, it is the challenge for future educators on how to channel that energy into a positive direction.

Information isn’t scarce these days {seesmic_video:{“url_thumbnail”:{“value”:””}”title”:{“value”:”Information isn’t scarce these days ”}”videoUri”:{“value”:””}}}

Thank you, Barbara. I mostly agree. However, I do think that it’s not just “checking out” of an intrinsically boring situation — the Internet is a tremendously seductive distraction. Even if they don’t feel like checking out, some students just find themselves sucked in to their email, Facebook, etc., because it’s right there, staring them in the face. At least that is what they tell me.

I was perfectly capable of tuning out my teachers long before there was any technology to do so. Technology isn’t causing the problem… some of the uses are a symptom (sometimes).

I’d say that the difference today was that the imaginative students in the past could daydream, others could doodle, but none of them had the powerfully seductive distractions of their email, IM, Facebook, World of Warcraft, staring them in the face, calling to them. The other problem is trying to get discussion going with any life to it when more than half the people in the discussion aren’t looking at each other, but at their laptops. I got so frustrated with not being able to know who I was connecting with — because even the students who were paying attention were looking at their screens, not at me — that I moved the chairs in a circle and asked them to shut their laptops for a few minutes. The outbreak of discussion was so intense that they forgot to open them again for the rest of the class. The combination of being in the back row and putting a laptop between you and everyone else is deadening. In a circle, there is no back row.

13 - Shelley Hayes

I don’t think the problem is about disinterest, but rather, the problem is disengagement. Most of us cannot fathom a life where we are inundated with a multitude of stimuli from birth. For many of us interested adults, the multitude of technologies is exciting, new, and interesting, but for most k-12 students and many university undergrads, the technology is simply part of their lives. There is a sense that one must stay connected all the time; even an hour away from the loop can mean missing the latest.

Further, information is accessible to students all the time. I don’t think they see as much value in listening to a professor lecture about a topic for an hour when they can read a similar synopsis online in 15 minutes. This is not to say that there is not a significant value to the lecture, just that contemporary students have not learned or appreciated that value.

Maybe their values are different than ours. We can’t expect students to disconnect and engage when we don’t embrace their viewpoint and vision for education. Putting the students in a circle re-engaged them in the process and made them forget, at least for the moment, that they were out of the loop. Or maybe they felt like they were involved in something the loop was worth waiting for.

14 - Regretful Multi-tasker

As a student, I too am aware of the amount of ‘multi tasking’ that appears to transpire during lectures and even in more intimate situations such as tutorials. I will admit I have fallen guilty to logging into Facebook whilst I should have been engaged in a lecture but I do feel rude and ignorant. Sometimes however I just cannot stop. This multitasking or I would put it as openness to distraction, is a disease and a curse of our generation. With laptops and phones that put a world at our fingertips this enables minds to wander from what is immediate. It seems as though it is becoming increasingly harder for one person to concentrate on one task at hand wether that task is listening to a lecture or simply putting the washing out.

I find it impossible to understand it when people say that when they are multi-tasking they are giving each thing in their mind the attention it deserves. It is simply not true. When you have these interchanging thoughts in your head, how is it possible to deeply consider each one.

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