Updated: Feb 25
Multitasking is rampant today – almost everyone does it at one time or another. I attended a workshop recently and soon after it began I noticed that at least one-third of the 100ish participants were tapping away on laptops, tablets and/or phones (yes, a few were using more than one device). I got up and peeked around. No one seemed to be taking notes on the lecture. They were reading and responding to emails or texts, posting on social media, and/or surfing the internet.
Is multitasking bad? Does it interfere with learning and retention? In study after study, test scores for people who multitasked in learning environments were significantly lower than for those who did not, or if scores were comparable, the multitaskers required considerably more time to achieve the same learning outcomes. One study found that people who sat close to multitaskers in the classroom had lower levels of learning even though they themselves weren’t doing it. Even worse, in one study multitaskers who performed poorly on a learning assessment believed they performed as well as their non-multitasking peers.
What’s a trainer to do? Neuroscientists tell us that most people’s maximum attention span is about 20 minutes. As attention begins to drift the temptation to multitask increases, and the digital device(s) beckon.
A trainer can and should vary the activities every 20 minutes: small group discussions, Q&A, application exercises, a video, and inward reflection activities are popular choices.
Most trainers ask participants to turn off phones at the beginning of training and to close out all unnecessary websites. E-learning designers should consider adding a slide with this message at the beginning of each online module.
Consider also these strategies based on current neuroscience research to reduce participants’ tendency to multitask:
Tests and quizzes. Whether printed or on a slide, response required or rhetorical, studies show that when people are tested on material, especially if they know they will be tested, they have higher levels of learning and retention. Flash a few quiz questions on the screen or pass out a written quiz. Quiz features in most e-learning software makes this a snap. Be sure to make the test reasonably challenging and base it on the learning objectives.
Let participants know in advance they will be tested, or give a “pop quiz” without advance notice. People will soon figure out they are going to be tested periodically. Motivation to learn increases if testing results are recorded which makes the participant personally accountable.
Tests and quizzes need not be confined to the learning module. Require completing an after-class test as a condition for class credit. Or use a training transfer technology tool to deliver one question at a time. The newest revision of my Training Training Technology white paper has an overview of the latest tools.
Flip the classroom. Do you really need to deliver the content via lecture? All of it? The temptation to multitask is most compelling during lectures. Consider instead: an online module, pre-reading, and/orvideo viewing ahead of time followed by in-class discussion, practice, and application. Of course a typical issue with pre-work is that some participants come to class without having done it. Guard against this after the first time by giving a test at the beginning of class or starting class with small group discussionthat draws on the pre-work content. Ask those who did not do well to spend their first break reviewing the material. (Have a few extra laptops and/or tablets available if needed.)
Chunk content into smaller segments of 15-20 minutes. Obviously this will not work for every class especially if participants travel to get there, but when possible, shorter training chunks (think stand-up meeting or short online module) mean participants will pay better attention and therefore they will learn more in less time.
Tell participants about the research on multitasking and learning. Ask them to consider how they and the organization will benefit when they achieve the outcomes of the class, and how their multitasking might interfere with their learning goals.
Use available tools on the technology platform. For virtual instructor-led classes, be sure to use the tools available such as raising hands. Prepare a question or two to ask an individual when the system notifies you that a participant is inattentive or has navigated to another screen. For self-paced e-learning, review key metrics such as time on slide and navigation and consider ways to shorten/revise the content.
These strategies probably won’t completely eliminate multitasking during training but chances are that the more of them you use, you will reduce it.
Until next time…