According to Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013), when people multi-task, they simultaneously engage in two or more functionally independent tasks and each task has specific goals, mental transformation, and response outputs. You can have an active conversation with your friends when walking across campus. But when the tasks require cognitive processes such as reading, listening, and writing, it is hard to be done at the same time.
In the classroom, students can provide several reasons why they use electronic devices such as computers and tablets in class. The first reason is to take notes. E-notes have become so popular since it is so easy for students to access their notes when they need even a semester or years after that. They can also directly add notes on lecture slides. Therefore, e-notes have a big advantage over paper notes. Besides, these devices are very helpful when students need to look up specific information related to a topic being discussed in class such as new words or examples. Electronic devices are also helpful when students need to share their work with their classmates or review their classmates’ work.
However, when these electronic devices are available, it is tempting to check email, surf the Internet, and update on social media during the class. When students try to listen to their teachers or a discussion and be on the Internet at the same time, they cannot 100% focus on either the classroom environment around them or the online interactions. A study of Kuznekoff and Titsworth (2013) published on Communication Education showed that using mobile phones during class time could affect the learning process. In fact, students who did not use their mobile phones took more detailed notes (62% more information), recalled more information for the lecture, and got a higher grade (one and a half letter grade) on the test compared to students who actively used their phones (for texting and Facebook interactions). The authors explained that when students learn new information, there are several components in the process, including short-term memory, working memory, long-term memory, and metacognition. Since learning is a process, if any components are impaired or interrupted (for example, texting diverts students’ attention from the target task), the information processed in short/working memory may be incomplete, which results in insufficient storage of information in long-term memory.
Actually, when students multitask, they are not doing two (or more) things at once. Instead, they are shifting from one to another. A study of Ophir et al. (2009) suggested that for students who frequently switch their attention from one activity to another (heavy media multi-taskers), they may have more difficulty to filter out irrelevant distraction in the environment than light media multi-taskers.
Personally, I will allow my students to use their computers in class, but I will set up limits on how their computers should be used and explain to them about the learning purposes of these limits.
Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff & Scott Titsworth (2013). The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning, Communication Education, 62:3, 233-252, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2013.767917
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), 15583–15587.
Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013). Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054402