My “Learning and Cognition” class is discussing attention, including what cognitive psychologists say about it, what strategies we ourselves use to stay focused on our school work, and what happens when there are just too many distractions. The dangers of distracted driving are common knowledge, yet we still have constant reminders not to drive under the influence or text while driving via public service announcements. What is not common knowledge is how distractions effect the learning process and recall of information; these are topics are saved for the world of academia. This week we have been challenged, should we choose this option, with finding a location with as many distractions as possible (radio, TV, music, people talking) and trying to recite our multiplication tables through 12 in the chaos. I felt I had somewhat of an advantage over my classmates with this task because I teach 5th graders and we constantly review our multiplication facts any chance we can get. Also, saying the facts in order allows me to use the patterns rather than the actual recall of multiplication products. Therefore, the twist I set for myself was to use a program my students use called “FastMath.” When a student first uses the program, it gives him a diagnostic test of all the facts in random order. The program accounts for the commutative property of multiplication as well, so 2 x 11 and 11 x 2 are treated as separate facts although they result in the same product. The program also considers the student’s response time, so even if he eventually enters the correct answer, the diagnostic test will not count the problem if he takes too long. My experiment was to take the diagnostic test without any distractions and again with multiple distractions in a classroom setting to experience what students may be experiencing. My hypothesis was that I would score more correct facts during the “no distractions” trial than during the “multiple distractions” trial.
During my “no distractions” trial, I was in the classroom with my daughter who quietly watched a video on her iPad. We had gone home to have dinner and rest some then returned to my campus, so I felt quite confident about my abilities to do well. I had headphones on to listen to the directions from the computer program who did not speak during the testing portion of the program (only gave directions) as well as to minimize any other sounds. I scored 132 of the 169 facts as “fast facts” – correct and within a time limit. Here is a screenshot of my results. I found it odd that I achieved some facts but not the commutative fact (ie. 3 x 9 was achieved but not 9 x 3, and 8 x 4 was achieved but not 4 x 8).
For my “multiple distractions” trial, I waited two days and did no rehearsal or practice between the two trials. The trial was conducted after school, so I was tired and somewhat hungry. I turned on a very loud video for my children, played Pandora radio through my iPhone which I listened to through an earbud only in my left ear (my “stronger ear”), and asked my two children to distract me by making as much noise as possible. I was also quite distracted emotionally by a conversation I had with my boss about a student approximately half an hour before the trial and had been texting back and forth with my co-teachers about the situation while setting up the trial. I felt these distractions would significantly impact my performance, so I was surprised when I scored 146 out of the 169 facts as “fast facts.” As I was completing the “multiple distractions” trial run, I felt very stressed out by all the noise and fuss. The music in my ear was drawing my interest away from the task because it was my favorite station. My children did a great job trying to ask me questions or arguing with each other, and I found myself answering their questions or redirecting them away from each other several times during the trial. I found it unusual that “easier” facts correctly retrieved and entered in the prior trial were not scored correct in this trial (ie. 5 x 5 and 2 x 10) but some of the more difficult facts were (ie. 9 x 7 and 8 x 9).
It would seem that I performed better with the distractions than without, which is completely the opposite of my hypothesis. Sure, some of the increased performance could be from the practice of the first round without distractions, but I felt sure my lack of rehearsal for two days between trials would minimize the impact. Perhaps I have become accustomed to multiple distractions; I am a teacher and a mother, and both roles require master multi-tasking, so I’ve been honing these skills for years and I consider myself a master multi-tasker not by choice but by necessity. Perhaps I attended to the trial to a greater extent because I knew there would be more distractions. Perhaps the stress of trial increased my performance (but this is more of my husband’s realm).
What does the research say? David Meyer and colleagues (2007; as cited in Sternberg & Sternberg, 2009, p. 157) determined that people perform more slowly and make more mistakes when working on more than one task. However, some research has shown that the modalities of the tasks may contribute to a person’s ability to divide attention; if the tasks are different modalities (ie. visual and verbal), people will divide their attention much better than if the tasks fall within the same modality (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012, p. 156). I believe that because my task at hand was mathematics-related, and all the other stimuli were verbal, I was able to divide my attention accordingly. However, had my task been something language-related, such as writing this blog, typing a copy of some other text, or even the recitation of the facts in order, my performance on the “multiple distractions” trial would be been compromised by the language of the video, music lyrics, and my children.
How does this apply to the school setting? I have much more experience multi-tasking than my students do and I spent several years in “divided attention” environments. My students would not be as successful multi-tasking as me which explains why new drivers have higher insurance rates than more experienced drivers; they have less experience with driving, much less driving with multiple distractors. However, I do believe this trend will change as more and more children practice multi-tasking at younger ages. My own son at only 10 years of age can concentrate on a video game while chatting with the other players of the game while texting back and forth with friends all while being distracted by his younger sister. My future students are already training their brains to handle higher cognitive loads and divide their attention on multiple tasks. My job is to make sure the modalities of the learning stimuli do not compete for their attention.
Sternberg, R. J., & Sternberg, K. (2009). Cognitive Psychology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.