Have you been paying attention?

I am positively terrible at maths. I can remember crying out of frustration in primary because I never understood my homework, and despite my best efforts I failed my final maths exam in year 11 before dropping the subject. This was not for lack of trying, and I truly did my best to pay attention. However, when something is as mundane as sin, cos & tan (no offence Pythagoras) and you already believe you can’t do it – your mind wanders. Mario cart is opened on the laptop and the white-out french manicure begins. For me in this situation, I got to a point where I no longer wanted to engage with the content. I was simply hearing, not listening – so it’s no surprise nothing would register. According to the university of Adelaide (2014), the 5 key ingredients for active listening are:

  1. pay attention
  2. show that you are listening
  3. provide feedback
  4. respond appropriately
  5. defer judgement

Now, if I’ve already failed step 1, you can bet I’m not going to reach the responding and judging phases. No wonder I never made friends with Pythagoras.

Is this switch off, however, facilitated by technological switch on? As soon as boredom ensues, frustration kicks in or interest is lost, it is now so easy to flick to another app, screen or tab for relief. As Junco (2015) explains, this practice has become ubiquitous as people continue to use devices that enable easy access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while managing other tasks. In fact as I write this, I am editing my blog layout in another tab, talking to friends on Facebook and intermittently watching Youtube. Should this just be accepted as the new way of learning and working, or is it detrimental to our learning and productivity?


Image source. 

Writer Lyn Homisak (2014) cuts right to the chase, stating the term ‘effectively multi-tasking’ is a gross oxymoron. That, in fact, multi tasking is over-rated and under-impressive, perhaps not a skill that students and professionals should be seeking to develop. Crenshaw (2014) feels the same, suggesting that multitasking is a myth! It is just shifttasking or background tasking cloaked in euphemism. This could explain why something that should only take me a maximum of two hours ends up taking me two days. According to Oviedo et al. (2015), my grades might actually improve if I would simply single-task, as research apparently suggests that “interacting with Facebook is often detrimental to academic performance” (p. 407). This argument does actually have some weight behind it – as Uncapher, Thieu & Wagner (2015, p. 1) discovered:

“…heavy media multitaskers exhibit lower [working memory] performance; lower performance on multiple [working memory] tasks predicted lower [long term memory] performance; (3) media multitasking-related differences in memory reflected differences in discriminability rather than decision bias; and attentional impulsivity correlated with media multitasking behaviour and reduced [working memory] performance.”

However I just cannot envision changing my study habits or online tendencies, so I wanted to test this out for myself. I roped my friend Nicole into an informal experiment with me. We came up with a way to compare out attention spans using the trusty help of Youtube. To begin, we watched a video that speaks to both of our interests, a make up tutorial by the very talented Nikkie Tutorials. It was a lengthy video, and we were both itching to do the Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat check up.


Image source.

After the video we tested each other. We each asked five questions in regards to product brands, other make up artists mentioned, names of shadows etc – and we both got all 5 correct. So, despite ‘media multi tasking’, we were still able to recall specific details. We then each chose a video for the other to watch that suited our personal interests – I chose a feminism video, and Nicole a car advertisement. We repeated the exercise, both not performing as well as we had previously. I had trouble recalling specific information and features and Nicole struggled to remember how different terms were explained. Our behaviours remained the same, however – both checking our phones throughout the videos, but we were definitely both more distracted. Perhaps the key to paying attention is not interference of media, but interests – I’m much less likely to be distracted, or distracted for as long, if I am engaged.


Image source. 

Reddy (2013) uncovered it is true most teens do perform better when focusing on a single task. However, those who are ‘high media multitaskers’ (about 15% of the study’s participants) can perform better when working with means such as email and music. So while some people may actually find ‘distractions’ encouraging or helpful, 85% of us are lying to ourselves when we pretend we can do things faster if we attempt 5 at a time.

So I cannot say whether we can give this debate a definitive answer. It appears that attention is paid more readily and fully when the topic is interesting to the subject – the detriment of media a subjective ailment. Regardless, I still believe my maths ability was flawed from the day I was born – no amount of attention was ever going acquaint me with Pythagoras.

Crenshaw, D 2014, The Myth of Multitasking Test (NEW), online video,1 September, Dave Crenshaw, viewed 20 September 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCeGKxz3Q8Q&gt;

Homisak, L 2013, ‘Is Multi-Tasking an Ability Worth Hiring for?’, The Consultant Is In, 1 April, viewed 20 September 2015, <http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=67e88b30-3f97-4683-8e38-4470bbac145d%40sessionmgr110&vid=5&hid=117&gt;

Ovido, V, Tornquist, M, Cameron, T & Chiappe, D 2015, ‘Effects of media multi-tasking with Facebook on the enjoyment and encoding of TV episodes’, Computers in Human Behaviour, vol. 51., pp. 407-417

Junco, R 2015, ‘Student class standing, Facebook use, and academic performance’, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, vol. 36, pp. 18-29

Reddy, S 2014, ‘ Teen Researchers Defend Media Multitasking’, The Wall Street Journal, 13 October, viewed 20 September 2015, <http://www.wsj.com/articles/teen-researchers-defend-media-multitasking-1413220118&gt;

The University of Adelaide 2014, Active Listening – Writing Centre Learning Guide, The University of Adelaide, viewed 20 <https://www.adelaide.edu.au/writingcentre/learning_guides/learningGuide_activeListening.pdf&gt;

Uncapher, M, Thieu, K & Wagner A.D. 2015, ‘Media multitasking and memory: Differences in working memory and long-term memory’, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 30, pp. 1-8


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