The New Marshmallow Test: Students Can’t Resist Multitasking

The state of the universe.
May 3 2013 10:45 AM

You’ll Never Learn!

Students can’t resist multitasking, and it’s impairing their memory.

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Meyer, of the University of Michigan, worries that the problem goes beyond poor grades. “There’s a definite possibility that we are raising a generation that is learning more shallowly than young people in the past,” he says. “The depth of their processing of information is considerably less, because of all the distractions available to them as they learn.”

Given that these distractions aren’t going away, academic and even professional achievement may depend on the ability to ignore digital temptations while learning—a feat akin to the famous marshmallow test. In a series of experiments conducted more than 40 years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel tempted young children with a marshmallow, telling them they could have two of the treats if they put off eating one right away. Follow-up studies performed years later found that the kids who were better able to delay gratification not only achieved higher grades and test scores but were also more likely to succeed in school and their careers.

Two years ago, Rosen and his colleagues conducted an information-age version of the marshmallow test. College students who participated in the study were asked to watch a 30-minute videotaped lecture, during which some were sent eight text messages while others were sent four or zero text messages. Those who were interrupted more often scored worse on a test of the lecture’s content; more interestingly, those who responded to the experimenters’ texts right away scored significantly worse than those participants who waited to reply until the lecture was over.

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This ability to resist the lure of technology can be consciously cultivated, Rosen maintains. He advises students to take “tech breaks” to satisfy their cravings for electronic communication: After they’ve labored on their schoolwork uninterrupted for 15 minutes, they can allow themselves two minutes to text, check websites, and post to their hearts’ content. Then the devices get turned off for another 15 minutes of academics.

Over time, Rosen says, students are able extend their working time to 20, 30, even 45 minutes, as long as they know that an opportunity to get online awaits. “Young people’s technology use is really about quelling anxiety,” he contends. “They don’t want to miss out. They don’t want to be the last person to hear some news, or the ninth person to ‘like’ someone’s post.” Device-checking is a compulsive behavior that must be managed, he says, if young people are to learn and perform at their best.

Rideout, director of the Kaiser study on kids and media use, sees an upside for parents in the new focus on multitasking while learning. “The good thing about this phenomenon is that it’s a relatively discrete behavior that parents actually can do something about,” she says. “It would be hard to enforce a total ban on media multitasking, but parents can draw a line when it comes to homework and studying—telling their kids, ‘This is a time when you will concentrate on just one thing.’ ”

Parents shouldn’t feel like ogres when they do so, she adds. “It’s important to remember that while a lot of kids do media multitask while doing homework, a lot of them don’t. One out of five kids in our study said they ‘never’ engage in other media while doing homework, and another one in five said they do so only ‘a little bit.’ This is not some universal norm that students and parents can’t buck. This is not an unreasonable thing to ask of your kid.”

So here’s the takeaway for parents of Generation M: Stop fretting about how much they’re on Facebook. Don’t harass them about how much they play video games. The digital native boosters are right that this is the social and emotional world in which young people live. Just make sure when they’re doing schoolwork, the cellphones are silent, the video screens are dark, and that every last window is closed but one.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and MindShift, a news website focusing on innovations in education and new trends in teaching and learning.

Annie Murphy Paul is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.

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