The Myth of Multitasking: Another Case for Performance Support
Have you ever been sitting in a training course, perhaps learning all about the fabulous new vendor management system your organization is implementing, when you felt that familiar buzz in your pocket? A new email has arrived via your smart phone and you just can’t resist responding. But not to worry, you can do that and still listen to the instructor, right? Fast forward a few weeks and you need to bring in a new vendor ASAP, but you just can’t remember how to use that new system. You don’t have any notes on the part that is stumping you. What to do? Too bad there aren’t any tools to help you out.
Most of us think we can multitask to some degree. We think we can read a book and listen to music at the same time, or text while driving (please don’t). We think we can listen to a speaker/lecturer while responding to an email. We think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
While you might have mastered that last one, study after study has shown that our brains simply cannot give its attention to more than one cognitive task at a time. When we try to multitask, each task is given much less than our full attention and both tasks suffer for it.
In a recent post, Annie Murphy Paul wrote about The Epidemic of Media Multitasking while Learning. The post focuses on a study by published by Larry Rosen, a California State University-Dominguez Hills psychology professor, in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior. In the study, investigators observed 263 students of various ages studying “something important” for a period of 15 minutes and marked once per minute what the students were doing as they studied. What they found was that, by the time 15 minutes were up, students had only spent about 65% percent of the time studying. The other 35% of their time was spent texting, checking Facebook feeds, watching TV, surfing the web, and other unrelated activities.
So what does this mean in terms of learning? As Paul writes:
“Evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.”
While this particular study focused on young people multitasking while doing schoolwork, I have both attended and taught many adult training courses in recent years where at least 40-50% of the participants were engaged in texting, emailing, web-surfing, and other unrelated tasks at any given time during the class. And do you think those folks were engaged in effective learning while simultaneously signing their kid up for summer camp? Probably not. In fact, they would likely be hard pressed to remember anything that was covered in class while their brains were otherwise engaged.
With middle school, high school and even college students, there are ways that parents and teachers can intervene to curb this multitasking behavior while in class or studying at home. It’s not so simple for adults. They tend to frown on instructors who try too hard to control behavior with bans on devices or using the computer for something other than the course work, especially if the adult learner does not think they are distracting anyone else. But the fact still remains that if multitasking is taking place, the learning will suffer.
In my opinion, studies like these provide yet another compelling argument for the use of performance support tools that are accessible during and after training. It’s obvious that we can’t count on people to absorb everything they need to know through training or eLearning. It is imperative that we provide performance support tools that allow people to find what they need when they need it. The more accessible and user-friendly the tool, the more likely it is to be used – cutting down on help desk calls, process goofs, and rework.
We can’t make the mistake of thinking of a training event as a one-off thing that we can check off a list. We need to spend just as much time, if not more, designing and implementing effective performance support solutions that let people find and apply processes and procedures they may have missed during a training event.