In this issue

Teaching tips

Media multitasking — studying in the digital age.

By Michael C. Patterson

Most instructors have probably experienced the distracting force of texting, social networking, etc. during class time. Students overwhelmingly perceive multitasking as a positive trait that enables them to accomplish more activities within a set amount of time. In a recent study, most students reported that they considered themselves good multitaskers and many believed that multitasking did not negatively affect their performance on the main task (Karpinski, Kirschner, Ozer, Mellott, & Ochwo, 2012). However, the issue of multitasking with digital media can negatively affect learning outcomes both in and outside the classroom. Today's technology enables students to be in constant contact with “friends” anywhere, 24/7. A common complaint among students is dismay over receiving a poor exam grade after investing ample time “studying.” A growing body of research examining students' study habits suggests that students may believe they are spending time studying when, in fact, they are actually spending a large proportion of that time multitasking with digital media (media multitasking).

Unfortunately, the perceived ability to multitask does not always correspond to more objective accounts of multitasking performance. Real-world and laboratory evidence of this can easily be found concerning the use of smartphones while operating motor vehicles (Strayer & Johnston, 2001; Strayer, Drews, & Johnston, 2003). Recently, I gave my students a self-reflection survey asking them to report on their study habits with regard to their use of digital media while studying (e.g., texting, checking different social media platforms, etc.) and the amount of time they spent studying (Patterson, manuscript in progress). Students completed the self-reflection as their graded exams were returned to them. Students' self-reports indicated multitasking with a median of five total digital media while studying for the exam. Looking at study time, the most frequent length of study reported was 60 minutes. Not surprisingly, students who used fewer devices while studying achieved higher exam scores, as did students who studied longer. Importantly, there was no interaction between study time and number of devices used. In other words, study time was not adjusted to compensate for the distractions influenced by media multitasking. Of note, students who spent more time studying while multitasking using more than four forms of digital media performed worse than those who studied less but did less multitasking. Therefore, increased study time did not compensate for the use of multiple (more than four) devices simultaneously. These results suggest that the most effective and efficient use of study time is to minimally engage in media multitasking or to halt it all together.

The issue is how to correct these bad study habits. Facebook and other social networking sites foster habit-forming behaviors that result in compulsively checking a smartphone (Ryan, Chester, Reece, & Xenos, 2014). Research supports the notion that digital devices can be habit-forming and result in compulsive checking behavior. In fact, 41 percent of college students reported increased levels of anxiety if they were unable to check their text messages (Rosen, Whaling, Rab, Carrier, & Cheever, 2013). For instructors, the question is, how do we discourage media multitasking while studying, knowing that simply asking students to stop doing so is not a practical or helpful strategy.

According to Foerde, Knowlton and Poldrack (2006), distracted studying due to media multitasking may prevent deeper information processing in favor of more rote learning. In an attempt to demonstrate why undistracted studying is preferable to media multitasking while studying, I presented my students with an in-class demonstration of levels of processing (Chew, 2010). The purpose of this endeavor was to increase students' metacognitive awareness with respect to learning new material. In this exercise, media multitasking is analogous to shallow levels of processing, whereas studying without distraction is more analogous to deeper levels of processing.

All students were presented the same list of words and given equal amounts of study time. Half the students were informed they would be tested later on the words; the other half were not. Those two groups were further split into two groups each: those told to indicate whether there was an A or an E in the word or those told to give pleasantness ratings for each word. Regardless of whether students were aware of a later test, students who did pleasantness rating (deeper processing) recalled more words than those who simply looked for an A or an E (more shallow processing). A subsequent test reflection indicated that students overall did not change their multimedia use while studying after receiving the levels of processing demonstration. Therefore, an in-class demonstration aimed at promoting better metacognitive awareness of the negative effect of media multitasking did not lead to a change in students' multitasking behavior.

What, then, could be effective and practical strategies to curb students' media multitasking while studying? Rosen et al. (2013) findings on students' anxiety when unable to check devices clearly demonstrates that removing them from the study environment is not effective. Perhaps one of the most successful strategies may be to encourage students to take periodic breaks to engage in unrelated texting, social networking, etc. during study sessions. Evidence suggests that when students are given a one-minute opportunity to check their devices for each 15-minutes spent studying, their attention to the study task and subsequent learning increased (Rosen et al., 2013). It is likely that interventions along these lines must rely on students' metacognitive awareness. Interventions aimed at increasing metacognitive abilities may hold the key to promoting better study habits, by enabling students to set aside their devices and recognize when media multitasking is appropriate, and when it is detrimental to learning outcomes.


Chew, S. L. (2010). Improving classroom performance by challenging student misconceptions about learning. APS Observer, 23 (4). Retrieved from 10/improving-classroom-performance-by-challenging-student-misconceptions-about- learning.html

Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America , 103 (31), 11778–11783.

Karpinski, A. C., Kirschner, P. A., Ozer, I., Mellott, J. A., & Ochwo, P. (2013). An exploration of social networking site use, multitasking, and academic performance among United States and European university students. Computers in Human Behavior , 29 (3), 1182–1192.

Patterson, M.C. A Naturalistic Investigation of Media Multitasking While Studying and The Effects on Exam Performance. Manuscript in Progress.

Strayer, D. L., & Johnston, W. A. (2001). Driven to distraction: dual-Task studies of simulated driving and conversing on a cellular telephone. Psychological Science , 12 (6), 462–466.

Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., & Johnston, W. A. (2003). Cell phone-induced failures of visual attention during simulated driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied , 9 (1), 23–32.

Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior , 29 (3), 948–958.

Rosen, L. D., Whaling, K., Rab, S., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2013) . Is Facebook creating “iDisorders”? The link between clinical symptoms of psychiatric disorders and technology use, attitudes and anxiety. Computers in Human Behavior , 29 (3), 1243–1254.

Ryan, T., Chester, A., Reece, J., & Xenos, S. (2014). The uses and abuses of Facebook: A review of Facebook addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions , 3 (3), 133–148.


Michael Patterson, PhD, is an assistant professor and coordinator of psychology within the Department of Education at University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. Patterson's research focuses on many aspects of cognition and metacognition in adults.