My most recent paper on multitasking, In-class multitasking and academic performance, has uncovered some interesting results. I conducted a survey of 1,839 college students and asked them how often they multitask during class by using Facebook, texting, emailing, searching for content not related to the class, IMing, and talking on the phone. I also collected students’ actual overall GPAs for the semester in which the study was conducted. In this post, I’ll only focus on the high frequency and moderate frequency activities:
Texting was a high frequency activity: 69% of students reported texting during class.
Using Facebook, searching for content not related to the class, and emailing were moderate frequency activities: 28% of students said they used Facebook during class, 28% of students said they used email during class, and 21% of students said they searched for content during class.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Using Facebook and texting during class were significantly negatively related to overall semester GPA after controlling for gender, race/ethnicity, and Internet skill. However, emailing and searching during class were not related to GPA.
While incongruent with the literature on multitasking in the field of cognitive science, the results are congruent with recent research finding comparable results. In a similar study, Shelia Cotten and I found that using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively associated with overall college GPA while emailing, searching, talking on the phone, and instant messaging were not. Furthermore, an experimental study by Wood et al. (2012) found that students who used Facebook while attending to a lecture scored significantly lower on tests of lecture material than those who were only allowed to take notes using paper and pencil; however, the scores of students who texted, emailed or sent IMs did not differ significantly from students in control groups.
What is going on?
While further research is warranted, I’ve got a few hypotheses: First, there may be something about the technologies themselves that leads to poorer outcomes. Second, it is possible that the discrepancies in outcomes may lie in the nature of how the technologies are used and the frequency with which they are employed. For instance, Rosen et al. (2011) found that students who sent and received the most number of text messages while watching a lecture video scored lower on a test of the lecture material than those who sent the least number of messages; however, there was no difference in scores between the group of students who sent the middle amount of messages and the other groups. My final hypothesis to explain the discrepancy between Facebook and texting and the other technologies is related to the activities students engage in while using each. For instance, my research has shown that how Facebook is used is a better predictor of academic outcomes than how much time is spent on the site.
The standard correlation vs. causation limitations apply: this is a cross-sectional and correlational design and more research is certainly warranted. While the sample on which this research was based was representative of the overall university population, it may not be representative of all institutions in the United States. The fact that participants were recruited via email and that the survey was administered online could have biased the sample towards students who regularly use email (and perhaps who multitask more). A final limitation was that the frequency with which students multitask during class was assessed via self report.
Image credit: anna-b http://www.flickr.com/photos/anna-b/3218868484/