Let’s see what happens when we switch tasks while using technology.
In Part 1 of this article, we explored the idea that despite believing that we are multitasking, we are actually just switching tasks, and in doing so we are really losing out. Let’s see what happens when we switch tasks while using technology.
I am sure you can easily see this picture: you are watching your favourite TV programme and checking out your social media feed and catching up with friends and family on your phone.
And you are proud of yourself for being so productive.
This lack of real attention may not be too problematic – who is dating whom or who killed whom in a TV programme will not have a significant impact on your life – in our everyday lives. It is a problem though when we wish to remember something in particular, for example when you study.
An examination of the memory process is useful here.
How we remember things
The memory process can be simplified to a three-step process. We start by encoding the information we receive from our senses. We then store the information first in short-term memory, and then in long-term memory, and finally we retrieve (hopefully) the information for use.
We can broadly divide memory into two types: declarative memories and procedural memories. Our procedural memories are memories of how to do things – how to drive or how to open a new document on a computer for example.
Our declarative memories are our memories of facts like your friend’s birthdate or your identity number or when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
We process the two key types of memory in different systems in the brain: procedural memories or new skills are processed in the striatum, and declarative memories are processed in the hippocampus. Memories stored in the hippocampus are quite different to the ones stored in the striatum.
These declarative memories can be recalled in situations that are different from where they were first learned. For this reason, what we study at home can be remembered during an exam in an exam-room.
Task switching creates problems in the first two steps of how we remember things.
Problems during encoding
Obviously, a distraction that takes place as we are about to encode something will prevent successful encoding, and therefore successful memory formation. However, task switching can also result in cognitive overload (this was discussed in Part 1) and as a result, not all elements of the information will be able to move from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Problems in storage
Research has shown that if there is technological distraction during the storage stage, it is possible that rather than storing a declarative memory in the hippocampus (where it belongs) it is stored in the striatum.
Memories stored in the striatum cannot be recalled in different situations and the information cannot be transferred from one situation to another (which is what we expect to happen with learning). Therefore, things that were meant to be learned while also using social media and watching TV will not be recalled in an exam-room situation.
We need the hippocampus-based memories for that.
Technology and task switching
Technology has made it even easier for us to task switch. We surround ourselves with devices that tempt our attention away from the task at hand. To be fair, constantly seeking new things and being distracted is the way our brain functions. However, the more we reward ourselves for being distracted, the more we are likely to be distracted as we seek gratification for the burning desire for something new.
Time to pause task switching
It is easy to see how adding technology to our lives creates the opportunity for task switching. Take a moment to consider how many times you force your learners to task switch as you give instructions while they are meant to be doing something else.
Our learners need to be taught the value of focusing on one task at a time to regulate cognitive overload and to allow for the successful transfer of information to the correct parts of the brain if we want them to be successful.
Perhaps you might wish to start practising some single-focus tasking in your own life so that you can share the benefits with your learners?