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Multitasking: it may be a productivity buzzword, but is it actually a valuable skill or is it a damaging distraction? There are numerous claims about whether or not the ability to juggle several projects simultaneously and switch back and forth between tasks is good or bad -- for productivity, for cognition, for memory. And a new study released this week adds some more data to the debate, particularly in light of how multitasking may impact learning.

Professors Rey Junco and Sheila Cotten will present a paper at the Oxford Internet Institute this week that examines how multitasking impacts college students' GPA. According to their findings, using Facebook and texting while studying were negatively associated with GPA. Interestingly, emailing while studying was positively associated.

"Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students' capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning," they write, "while emailing may be directly related to learning. Our research indicates that the type and purpose of ICT use matters in terms of the educational impacts of multitasking."

That last sentence seems key for the ongoing debates about the efficiencies or dangers of multitasking: it's not just a matter of tackling multiple tasks simultaneously; and it's not as simple as which tech tools students turn to as they turn away from studying. Rather it's how these different tech tools are used.

Junco and Cotten suggest that the positive association of email with GPA may be because this is the mode of communication students are likely to use with professors and not with friends. In other words, if you switch away from studying to send an email, your purpose is likely to be different than if you switch away to visit Facebook. In the case of the former, it's academic; in the case of the latter, it's social. In the case of the former, email can enrich what students are studying; in the case of the latter, it is indeed a distraction.

That isn't to say that "social" sites like Facebook are necessarily a bad thing in terms of students' performance. Some of Junco's previous work has pointed to the positive impact that social media has on student engagement, for example, something that does in turn boost student achievement. But when it comes to student cognition, if students aren't using Facebook for academic purposes (and most of them admit they aren't), their studying suffers.

Junco and Cotten do note that the multitasking in this study was self-reported. While Facebooking and studying are correlated with lower GPA here, it is possible that those students with lower GPAs simply spend more time multitasking.

You can read the draft paper here.

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Audrey Watters


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