Millennials, Multitasking and Learning

Okay, it’s grumpy-old-man time.

I’m taking a class right now about astrophysics, the big bang, and some outstanding problems in cosmology.  It meets on Saturday mornings and is in the University of Chicago’s Master of Liberal Arts program, basically a program for people with non-academia jobs, in which they can take classes taught by actual U-Chicago professors, enriching their lives and also enriching the U of C’s endowment.

Now, in this class, a student who is about 10 years younger than me (I think) sits near me.  I’ll try my best to neutrally describe my behavior and hers during the 3-hour Saturday-morning seminar.

First though, what are we listening to? The professor generally lectures, and uses a powerpoint to accompany the lecture.  These are well-made powerpoints, with relatively few words per slide, and pictures, charts and graphs that supplement what he’s talking about.  Frequently, people ask questions and he answers them.

Me: I have a notebook on the table, in which I sometimes write notes.  Sometimes I copy words off of the powerpoint (though by no means all of them); sometimes I write down ideas which have been spoken about but not typed into the powerpoint; sometimes I write down ideas that come to me as a result of things the professor or the other students have said.  Sometimes I create graphs or note parallels between different ideas and write them down.  Sometimes I just listen.  Every now and then I adjust my seating position.  Perhaps once during class I will receive a text or a phone call, one which I will note but not reply to.  While the professor is speaking, I frequently look at him, sometimes showing him that I understand things, or sometimes that I don’t.  When other students ask questions, I frequently look at them.  Sometimes I ask questions.

Her: She has her iPad on one knee, her iPhone on the other knee, a notebook on the table, a tupperware full of fruit, and a bottle of water.  Frequently during class, she receives texts, to which she almost always immediately replies.  Sometimes she initiates texting or looks at facebook.  On the iPad, she is reading a women’s magazine, not continuously but definitely frequently.  Sometimes she very deliberately turns off and puts away either her iPad, her iPhone, or both, but then she generally gets them back out within a few minutes.  She is eating or drinking nearly the entire time, at least until the food and water run out.  She copies down each and every word on the powerpoint.  In fact, her notes and mine are actually not all that different (it’s not very often I really have the sort of synthetic idea I described above,  nor that often that I skip writing down words on the powerpoint).  She never asks any questions, and barely looks at either the professor or her fellow students.

One question you may have – how am I paying attention if I have noted all of these behaviors in my neighbor?  The only reply I can really make to this query is that I more or less involuntarily note her behavior.  It’s not because I’m intentionally tracking it, it’s just so annoying that I can’t help but noticing it (kind of like the phone call you hear one side of on the train or the bus – you can’t really tune it out).  There are 15-20 people in the class (most of whom are older than both she and I), and none of whom engage in this behavior, so it’s marginally disruptive, especially since I’m sitting next to her.

Let’s make a couple of assumptions.  Most importantly, let’s assume that she and I are at roughly the same intellectual level (whatever that might mean).  Like we have the same general intelligence.  Let’s also assume that we’re both relatively unacquainted with the challenging and vast fields of cosmology and astrophysics (her behavior wouldn’t be mysterious to me if she was either a natural genius or someone who already had an extensive background in cosmology and astrophysics, but if she were, why is she in this program?).  These assumptions both seem fair.  Let’s also assume that this person is doing what they think is acceptable – they’re not trying to be rude or inattentive, they just act like this because it feels normal to them.  The sorts of people who sign up for this program self-select in all of these areas.  It’s not a degree program in which specialists enroll, and it’s also not a degree program in which relatively unintelligent, anti-intellectual sorts enroll.  Why would you?  Each class costs $3,000!  But even if these assumptions aren’t true, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are.  I know this situation – the contrast between people like me and people like her – is frequent enough, mutatis mutandis, in all sorts of cultural and academic settings right now.

My question is this: are my classmate and I both learning at similar levels of effectiveness?  My sense, of course, is that we’re not, but I know through enough conversations, news articles read, etc., that there are a large number of people who believe (though they generally don’t cite anything like authoritative evidence) that the generation that is between 15 and 8 years younger than me, roughly, is better at multitasking, and in fact, may be capable of learning about the relatively complex science we are learning about while engaging in the sorts of behaviors described above, whereas, because I did not grow up constantly interacting with my cell phone, my iPad and my laptop (I didn’t own the any of these devices until I was 20), I am incapable of functioning in this way.  When I’m in situations where I am acting like this (it’s not like it never happens – I do sometimes multitask, like in boring meetings), I generally feel like I’m not exactly getting what’s being talked about, only catching general points and not interacting.  Many in this generation, though, report that they don’t feel like they’re missing anything.  I have my doubts.

Why I don’t believe this is probably obvious – this is complex stuff that requires one’s full attention.  A student like this is confusing the copying down of information with learning.  It is totally possible to copy down the words on the powerpoint while texting with one’s friends, reading a women’s magazine,  snacking, and never asking a single question.  What is not possible is to comprehend and process this information with anything like the requisite amount of comprehension.  Such a student thinks they’re learning, mostly because they don’t know what else learning might feel like, and they have, over the course of time, developed such bad attention-paying skills that they think there is no alternative to this mode of existence.  They actually have very shallow understanding of everything they comprehend in this manner but, having never understood anything at a deeper level, they think that’s all there is.  Finding this world of half-comprehension relatively boring and unengaging, they move along to distracting themselves with texting, etc., and the cycle continues.

When such a person looks at me, they see a student who is incapable of multitasking, and who probably isn’t getting anything more out of the class than they are, but they, of course, also are texting, reading and eating.  Ergo, such a person must think, they are leading a more satisfying existence than I am, since I insist on such quaint social habits as making eye contact with a speaker, asking them questions, and not checking my phone every 2 minutes.

I don’t know how many millenials or gen-y-er’s read this blog, but if they do, I really invite their input: am I missing something about the mode of existence being lived by the student next to me, or am I right that they’re just not understanding anything in nearly the depth they might?  I don’t intend this as a rhetorical question; I’ve tried my best to describe this situation objectively.


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4 Responses to Millennials, Multitasking and Learning

  1. John T. says:

    I’m a bit of a troglodyte myself so my answer might not be the most representative, but I have the exact same reaction to multi-tasking. Mostly it’s because I see how susceptible I am to it myself. I can read, GChat, talk with people in the room and watch a baseball game all at the same time and I used to do it a lot. Then I’d look up after a couple of hours and feel like I had indeed learned things from articles, saw what happened in a baseball game and talked with people both physically and online, it didn’t feel like I’d actually experienced any of those activities.

    Even now, I should be writing something else and I took a break to go through the blogroll, which shows just how pernicious split-attention living is, even when you try to avoid it. The more I’m able to compartmentalize my time and ensure that most things (and the things that are most important to me) I do one at a time, fully focused on them, the more I feel I get both more out of them and more out of life in general.

    Then again, I don’t own a smartphone yet, so we’ll see how focused I am when I’m truly tested.

  2. Sam Brown says:

    I am fascinated when I witness this behavior in law school lectures. I sit in class with 65 other students in what is a demanding and fast paced lecture/socratic dialogue situation. I would guess that about 60 of those people have never gone through a lecture without tuning out completely for a period of time to g-chat (with each other) and/or post not very funny things about the professor on Facebook. Supposedly I go to a good law school and supposedly our grades are essential to living happily ever in a declining profession. So what gives I wondered. I resisted this behavior for most of first semester though it is nearly impossible not the check the Sox score if they are playing during class. This semester there are times when I will drift deeper into the internet. One thing I will say about taking these quick 30 second “Politico/” breaks (as I like to call them) is that during a particularly demanding lecture (one in which even paying 100% attention will result in few burnout/daydream lapses) taking an intentional space out break allows me to aggressively re-engage with the lecture when I return. Maybe it is kind of like when you are staring at an object and you look away for a while and look back you see it clearer, or different. So that is my best defense of the potential educational benefits of internet browsing during lecture. But to a person, when I ask them, the more serial offenders admit “they can’t help it.” I believe them and I can feel myself becoming addicted to this type of multi-tasking and it is frightening.
    I asked a professor what his reaction would be if I brought a newspaper into class, or a racing forum, and actively read it. He said he would make me put it away. But the professor told me he doesn’t mind if people surf the internet while he lectures, though a few of his colleagues outlaw computers and everyone outlaws phones.

  3. David says:

    So I’m vaguely aware of studies suggesting a link between intelligence and the ability to focus the mind, and I’m all-too-well-aware of living in an increasingly diffuse culture that is increasingly inhospitable to ‘focusing’ on anything. I can’t help but wonder, then, whether the link between focusing and developing the mind is such that in chipping away at the former we’re chipping away at the latter.

  4. Josh says:

    @ John – Good to know not all 25-year-olds believe this!

    @ Sam – Sometimes I think it would be better at times where one loses focus, to simply *actually lose focus* (i..e, actually daydream) instead of move on to focus on something else. But checking the White Sox score is important.

    @ David – There was a book released in the last couple of years called “The Shallows”, which made the claim you suggest. I didn’t read it but I read some reviews and discussion; there was a lot of hostility, and a lot of those “yeah but every technology always seems bad, therefore this one can’t be either!” sorts of fallacious refutations.

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