Letter to the Editor: Multitasking is not the key to test-taking success in college

The Rider News ran an article on multitasking entitled “Multitasking can be both essential and dangerous,” stating that, for the most part, college kids find it beneficial. It mentioned that you have to be trained to handle multiple things simultaneously. My life experience as a student and educator is the precise opposite. While in graduate school, I analyzed how best to study and do well in the complicated subjects of advanced mathematics. It is necessary to give your full attention to any serious mental task to fully understand the complicated ideas and to eschew multitasking. There are a number of reasons for this.

The nature of human thought is to focus fully on one subject. In many ways the brain is similar to a computer. Computers do not multitask, but instead quickly store in memory partial results, go to another task and then retrieve the partial results from the original task. While storing and retrieving results, a computer will display the hourglass to show that it is busy. When people attempt to deal with interruptions, they also store thoughts in memory and then retrieve them after the interruption. However, the storage and retrieval processes in our own brains are error-prone.

Another important thing about thinking is the relationship between thinking and neural networks. In psychological terms, we speak of the unconscious and conscious mind. We consciously think of the concept the professor is speaking about or what we are reading. We then process this thought in our unconscious mind. We think of ramifications, examples, implications, visualizations and questions. Multitasking interferes with this processing, preventing proper thought on implications and such. We need to relax and give our thoughts full attention to try to fully understand.

Here is an example: consider studying a foreign language. Words have both definitions and connotations. A definition is the meaning in a dictionary, so a French word and an English word can have the same definition. A connotation is a commonly understood subjective cultural or emotional association of a word that one obtains from literature. The French and the English connotations of words may be different in spite of the identical definitions. If we study while being frequently interrupted, we may focus on the definitions and miss the connotations. Since students are required to know the connotations as well as the definitions, they will get lower grades on tests for failing to know both.

When taking tests or doing homework, we need to focus our full attention on what we are doing, pause while “thinking of nothing” (another phrase I coined for myself) and then return to the subject. This pause allows the neural network, the unconscious mind — the hourglass of our brains — to operate. Multitasking interferes with this critical process.

I ask students if they get nervous during tests, and some say they do. My advice is that they must give their full attention to the test. If they are nervous, they are only thinking of being nervous. The best thing to do in this situation is to look away, think of nothing, then look at the test and start thinking about it.

If we enjoy music, we should give our full attention to the music. If we enjoy conversation, we should give our full attention to the conversation. We need to budget our time and remember that we cannot multitask doing serious intellectual tasks.

Good luck on your exams, students.


-Dr. Sanford Aranoff

Adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics and Physics

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