Expert Commentary

No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance

2012 study in Computers & Education on how Facebook and instant messaging can hurt college students' grades.

Can the frequent use of communication technologies and social media diminish students’ ability to learn? If so, which particular information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the most detrimental effects — and when does their use most hurt learning? Given that these questions are at the heart of an intense debate about education in the digital age, researchers have been focusing on how engagement with ICTs, particularly the use of social networking sites, is affecting young people.

A 2012 study published in Computers & Education, “No A 4 U: The Relationship between Multitasking and Academic Performance,” analyzes Web survey data from more 1,839 students at a public university. The researchers, from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and Lock Haven University (Penn.), examine how the use of Facebook — and engagement in other forms of digital activity — while trying to complete schoolwork was associated with college students’ grade point averages. Students gave the researchers permission to see their grades. The participant group was 64% female, and 88% were of traditional college age, 18 to 22 years old.

The study’s findings include:

  • During coursework, “students spent the most time using Facebook, searching for non-school-related information online, and emailing. While doing schoolwork outside of class, students reported spending an average of 60 minutes per day on Facebook, 43 minutes per day searching, and 22 minutes per day on email. Lastly, students reported sending an average of 71 texts per day while doing schoolwork.”
  • The data suggest that “using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively predictive of overall GPA.” However, “emailing, talking on the phone, and using IM were not related to overall GPA.”
  • “Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork taxes the student’s limited capacity for cognitive processing and precludes deeper learning. First, paying attention to Facebook or texting while studying limits essential processing because energies focused on attending to these technologies cannot be focused on making sense of study material.”
  • In addition, “using Facebook or texting while studying limits the capacity for representational holding because working memory is taxed while trying to pay attention to competing stimuli. As such, representational holding is limited by the information processing bottleneck — there is only a limited amount of information that can be held in working memory and when that limit is reached, other information cannot be held.”

The researchers explore why frequent Facebook use and texting were linked to poorer academic performance, while instant messaging, online searching and emailing were not: “This discrepancy can either be explained by characteristics of the technologies themselves or by qualitative differences in how the technologies are used by students — Facebook and texting are [perhaps] used for social purposes while emailing and searching are used for academic purposes.” The study calls for more research to explain this discrepancy.

In related research, another 2012 study in Computers & Education that focused on Facebook use during classroom learning found that “attempting to attend to lectures and engage digital technologies for off-task activities can have a detrimental impact on learning.” A 2010 study in Computers in Human Behavior also supports these general findings.

Tags: Facebook, Twitter, higher education, cognition

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