Can millennials pay attention to classwork while texting, tweeting and being on Facebook?

It’s hard not to notice the connection of today’s youth to technology.

Fused to their smartphones around the clock, they prefer screens to paper and text message to speech; they consider leaving voicemail an act of interpersonal aggression.

They seem to focus differently too: skimming and sampling their way through multiple streams of data, they look like they’re taking it in all at once.

Some educators call them “digital natives,” reflecting the idea that tech is at the core of who they are and how they function.

If living with technology really has rewired this generation for multitasking, what implications does this have for how we educate them? Should we tolerate – or maybe even encourage – mobile devices in class? And should we worry when we see students keeping an eye on social media or other diversions while doing homework?

Why attention matters for learning

As a professor who specializes in course design, I deal with these questions frequently as I help fellow faculty devise better strategies. In this work, I draw on my research background in cognitive psychology, a specialization focusing on mental processes such as reasoning, memory and attention.

Of those processes, attention is one that I tell teachers to be particularly attuned to. Research shows that memory – especially working memory, which holds information we’re using in the present moment – is deeply intertwined with attention.

Without sustained focus, we retain surprisingly little, and that window of focus is much narrower than we may realize.

So, are the minds of digital natives – or any heavy tech users – better or worse when it comes to attention? It’s a complicated question, partly because attention works in some paradoxical ways.

The function of attention is to prioritize where we put our limited cognitive resources at any given moment. One thing attention does is keep irrelevant information at bay. Like a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub, its job is to ensure that only the most important and relevant elements pass through into conscious awareness.

But at the same time, a well-functioning attention system has to stay open to information that’s in the background and could be potentially useful. That mental bouncer has to constantly scan the crowd for anyone who might turn out to be a great addition to the party, pick them out and usher them inside.

What technology does to the ability to pay attention

Technology seems to have a bigger impact on that second side of attention.

Certain kinds of tech use – habitually consuming lots of online media at once, or playing certain kinds of video games – appear to boost the ability to efficiently pick up on peripheral information while keeping up with a main task.

Technology in class remains a distraction.

And although long-term studies are lacking, there is a growing body of research on how tech-saturated environments shape the minds and brains of kids.

It’s unlikely that video games or online media damage kids’ ability to pay attention. But comparative research across high-tech and low-tech societies suggests that information processing is different in kids who grow up working with digital rather than physical tools. Neither group is better or worse across the board, but this research suggests that high-tech kids may be less inclined to learn by watching for extended periods of time.

That said, we should be cautious about concluding that today’s students have developed the ability to juggle as much technology as they want. Technology has not reshaped the basic ways in which our brains process information.

As cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham points out, the impact of things like video games is relatively subtle. All they can do is tinker around the edges of our mental systems, rather than altering them at the core.

As Willingham says, something as fundamental as attention couldn’t be deeply reshaped without a major overhaul of the brain – something that would be a function of evolution, not life experiences.

All of this means that college teachers should be skeptical of claims that their game- and tech-obsessed students process information completely differently. Compared to earlier generations, today’s students are probably no more able to learn while simultaneously engrossed in Twitter, Facebook and texting.

College students and technology

There are other pitfalls to consider.

Research with young adults in college suggests that they are neither as enthusiastic about technology nor as adept at using it as we may assume. Sometimes, they intentionally opt for lower-tech approaches; in one study of California college students, most said that they preferred paper over a browser for their own studying.

This is something my faculty colleagues commonly observe as well – that although their students may use technology like social media casually throughout the day, it doesn’t translate to other tech-based tasks, such as navigating a course’s online homework system.

Students also get into trouble if they assume – because of the “digital nativism” idea, or simple lack of self-awareness – that they can master demanding coursework while engaged in digital distractions.

Evidence suggests that multitasking – such as tweeting in class – reduces learning, or at the very least makes it take longer.

Even sitting next to a classmate surfing the web on his or her own laptop hampers learning.

In sum, despite that appearance of being fused to their devices, today’s students aren’t immune to the distraction those devices cause. And they don’t necessarily want technology in every corner of their educational lives.

How college teachers can help

College teachers need to include lots of tech support for online assignments and other kinds of educational technologies, because even students who have grown up with computers still get stuck when using them in new contexts.

Teachers must also avoid the trap of adding tech to a class just because they assume digital native students want it. Educational technology can be highly effective, but only when it is tightly coupled to the teacher’s goals.

Even better, teachers can help students understand for themselves how attention works – knowledge that everyone ought to have in today’s distracting era. Without vilifying technology, teachers can work to raise students’ awareness about how attention impacts learning more than we may realize, no matter what our age.

The effects of technology on cognition are intriguing, but they don’t justify teaching millennials as if they were a new species. Teachers need to think twice about tolerating devices in class, except as part of structured activities that link to the lesson at hand.

The Conversation

Michelle Denise Miller is Director, First Year Learning Initiative at University College and Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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