Driven to Distraction?

From the back of any classroom in law school, you’re likely to see students surfing the web, checking emails, or texting while a lecture or class discussion is going on. A recent National Law Journal article reports a study’s finding that 87% of the observed law students were using their computers for apparently non-class related purposes—playing solitaire, checking Facebook and looking at sports scores, and the like—for more than 5 minutes during class. The study by St. John’s Law Professor Jeff Sovern was published in a recent edition of the Louisville Law Review. 2 and 3L’s –not 1Ls–were the groups most likely to be engaged in non-class related activities.


Conventional wisdom and common sense tell us that media multitasking is bad for learning and instruction. For stretches of time, students in class aren’t paying attention to what’s happening in class. But it’s unclear whether the lack of engagement in the class is for any perceived good reasons. Perhaps the class discussion or portion of the lecture was perceived as boring or not relevant to what will be on a test.

Scientists have termed this student behavior to be “media multitasking,” and it isn’t confined to the classroom. Many students probably do this while studying. And media multitasking isn’t just a student problem—we all do it. Psychologist Maria Konnikova in her New Yorker blog writes that the internet is a like a “carnival barker” summoning us to take a look.

Konnikova points to a study that suggests a possible adverse side effect of heavy media multitasking. Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009) conducted an experiment where they asked the question: Are there any cognitive advantages or disadvantages associated with being a heavy media multitasker? This is one of the few studies that look at the impact of multitasking on academic performance.

In the experiment, participants were classified and assigned to two groups—heavy media multitaskers or light media multitaskers. Participants in the two groups had to make judgments about visual data such as colored shapes, letters or numbers. Ophir et al., found that when both groups were presented with distractors, heavy users were significantly slower to make judgments about the visual data than light users and that heavy users were more likely to make mistakes than the light users. Also heavy users had a more difficult time switching tasks than light users when the distractor condition was presented. The researchers explained the results with the theory that the light users had a more top-down executive control in filtering in relevant information and thus were less prone to being distracted by irrelevant stimuli. By contrast, heavy users had a more bottom-up approach of taking in all stimuli and thus were more likely to be taken off the wrong track by irrelevant stimuli.

In short, the researchers concluded that being a heavy media multitasker has adverse aftereffects. If you’re a heavy user, you’re more likely to be taking in irrelevant stimuli than if you are a light user. In other words, heavy media multitasking promotes the trait of being over-attentive to everything, relevant or irrelevant. That could mean that if you’re a heavy user, your lecture or book notes are more likely to contain irrelevant information – irrespective of whether you’re actually online when you were taking notes. It’s as though heavy media use has infected your working memory with a bad trait. Because the effects are on working memory, heavy media multitaskers should be advised to go back and deliberate over their notes, and revise accordingly.

But a note of caution. The study’s conclusions are a long way from being applicable to what actually happens in academic life. The study involved exposures to relevant and irrelevant visual and letter or number recognition stimuli. So it’s unclear whether the heavy user is equally distracted when she or he is presented with semantic information—textual or oral information that has meaning. And that’s an important qualification of the study’s conclusions because semantic information constitutes the bulk of what we work on as students. As far as I can tell, there is no such study where participants are asked to make judgments about semantic information.

Also the direction of causality is unclear. Does heavy multitasking make a person a poor self-regulator of attention? Or does heavy media multitasking happen because a person is a poor self-regulator?

Although the research is far from conclusive, we shouldn’t wait to act on what exists. Here are a few suggestions on what students and instructors can do.

• First, manage your distractions. Common sense dictates that being distracted is bad for studying—whether the source of the distraction is the internet, romantic relationships or television. Take a behavioral management approach. Refrain from using the internet, until you’ve spent some quality undistracted time with your studying or listening to what’s happening in class and then reward yourself with a limited amount of internet time – after class.

• Second, assess your internet use. Monitoring your use alone will have a reactive effect. Just being aware of what you’re doing will cut down on the amount of irrelevant stimuli you’re exposed to.

• Third, if you identify yourself as a moderate to heavy internet consumer of non-academic content while studying or in class, be more vigilant about the quality of your lecture and study notes. These notes are more likely to contain a lot of irrelevant material, and you’ll need to excise irrelevancies.

• Fourth, instructors take note that if they see their students tuning out in class, they should re-evaluate their lesson plans and classroom management to more fully engage the majority of their students. Banning the internet from the lecture halls won’t necessarily make students more engaged. If the class doesn’t engage the students, they will find other ways to tune out—with or without the internet.

1 Comment

Filed under Educational Psychology, legal education

One response to “Driven to Distraction?

  1. Cheryl Howard

    I think that this issue should be addressed in student orientations before students start college or law school. Perhaps asking them to monitor their internet use the week of orientation will help to bring the problems with this behavior to consciousness.

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