Research has revealed that there is one common practice that is reducing students’ productivity by up to 40 percent – multitasking.
It’s time to capitalise on the information presented by researchers and stop pretending that we can multitask!
The truth is, our brains aren’t suited to doing too many things at once. And here’s why…
The science behind making memories
The human brain is very complex, with neurones connected by literally hundreds of trillions of synapses. Each neurone may have thousands of links to other brain cells. The connections develop with experience – this plasticity continually ‘rewires’ the brain.
Sensory input bombards the brain and most of what you encounter each day is simply filtered out. To properly encode a memory, you must first be paying attention.
Only a few stimuli pass through to your conscious awareness and different groups of nerves are active at any one time. A connection between two neurones becomes stronger when a neurone consistently activates another, making it ‘fire’.
A memory involves reactivating a specific group of neurones. The connections between brain cells can be made stronger depending upon how often they are activated. Active connections get stronger while those that are not used get weaker and can eventually disappear completely – the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.
Neuroscientists have also found that different areas of the brain are important for memory formation:
- The hippocampus is where episodic memories are formed. During sleep, the hippocampus ‘replays’ recent events. The same neurones that were active during an experience fire again and again during slow-wave (deep) sleep.
- The hippocampus helps the neocortex determine what information needs to be stored.
- The hippocampus is an area of the brain where stem cells can produce brand new neurones throughout life. Interesting recent studies have shown that exercise leads to an increase the volume of the hippocampus, suggesting that new neurones have been created (at the same time as there has been a measurable improvement in performance on memorisation).
- It has also been hypothesised that the hippocampus acts as a memory index, directing neuronal traffic back to the appropriate circuits of the neocortex. We know that one can more easily store information about topic areas that you already know something about as information can be connected to information that is already stored in long-term memory.
What happens when we try to multitask?
Researchers have found that multitasking can reduce productivity by 40 percent. Heavy multitaskers have been found to be less mentally organised, and even when chronic multitaskers tried to suddenly focus on a single task instead of many, the results remained the same – they were not as efficient or effective as one would expect. Cognitive processing and creativity were also found to be negatively affected.
A simple tip to increase productivity
Given that the teenage brain has been shown to be particularly susceptible to the impacts of multitasking, our students really do need to minimise distractions when trying to study. One of the biggest distractions we all face today is technology.
While digital technology has revolutionised education in many positive ways, switching off devices while trying to study is one simple way to avoid the damaging effects of multitasking.
Other findings relevant to our students are:
- Time poor students cannot forgo their sleep. When they fail to get sufficient sleep, the brain is prevented from consolidating memories.
- The teenage brain is particularly sensitive to the effects of blue light emitted by smartphones, tablets and computers. This suppresses melatonin production. Using these devices at night can interfere with normal sleep cycles.
- Distractions that occur while you are trying to remember something can certainly get in the way of encoding memories or encoding them accurately.
Additional study advice for our students
To boost learning, neuroscientists recommend:
- Minimising distractions such as mobile phones, social media and television.
- Using active testing or recall, doing quizzes or forcing yourself to actively recall information.
- Spreading learning out, spacing study sessions.
- Mixing things up through ‘Interleaving’ – mixing the practice of several interrelated skills.
- Processing images and spoken words at the same time. NOTE: this is not the case for images and visual text. When you try to listen to a speaker while reading something unrelated at the same time, neither is well understood.
- Using stories – mnemonics and stories will help form associations.
While our teachers will continue to insist that technology is only used for educative purposes while at school, please help us by restricting access to technology while your child is studying or completing homework.
When Michael Carr-Gregg visited the College recently, he recommended several different apps to assist those with chronic issues. Two that you might like to look into include ‘SelfControl’ and Cold Turkey.
Remember, the key to boosting productivity and improving memory function is to stop pretending we can multitask and tackle one task at a time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jan Hart is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.