IM and Homework: Does multitasking help or hurt?
Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 05:10PM
Peggy Kendall

I don't know what it's like in your house, but here it is clear. The holidays are over and school is back and my daughter has once again situated herself in front of the computer.  Most of the time she is doing homework--I think.  She does her homework at the same time she chats back and forth with her friends on IM. She swears she can do both and do them well.  I'm not so sure.

In a small study we did with middle school students, we found that students tended to take longer to complete Math and English problems when they were IM'ing.  The accuracy was about the same.  The really interesting thing is that there were some kids, just a few, that actually did more while IM'ing and with greater accuracy.  When we asked them why that was, they said they just had more fun when they could chat every now and then.  I had to agree.  The IMing group was much more animated and energized than the group who was given a bunch of English and Math problems to complete. So IM'ing can make the homework more fun.  The real question, however, is the increasing value our kids are putting on multi-tasking misplaced? Is IM/homework multi-tasking a good thing?

An article on CBS news looked more in depth at the question of multi-tasking.   According to David Meyer, a psychologist who directs the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, kids are actually losing valuable time and energy every time they start multitasking. It is the transitions that require extra cognitive energy and space. Each time kids switch to another task, they need to re-orient themselves. That takes time.  And when they are jumping between math and six different IM conversations, not to mention the music blaring and the little brother running around, the transitions can take lots of time. That extra cognitive load also results in an inability to go in-depth in any one task. That doesn't sound good. The ultimate question then is: should IM and homework go together?

Here is what I've come up with. For some kinds of homework, it seems like IM is not only o.k. but it might actually be a good thing.  IMing can add energy and interest to otherwise unengaging material.  It might take all evening instead of twenty minutes to finish up daily math problems, but kids are probably doing just fine on the problems and are also having fun with their friends.  I also know that when everyone is doing the same homework at the same time (much like the studying together we did in college) they actually talk about the problems every now and then and help each other out. So that's a good thing. There is some homework, however, that is not a good fit with IM.  For instance, my daughter's latest project is a 13 page research paper.  That takes concentration.  She is also looking at an impending deadline.  That takes focus.  They key is to train my daughter to figure out when IM'ing is a good thing and when she needs to sign off.

The bottom line is that IM and homework can go together, but we need to help our kids become wise as to how the two can work with each other and when they work against each other.  It is just one more skill our kids will need as they venture forth into this new technological era.  And besides, once my daughter figures it out, maybe she can help me figure out how to talk on my cell phone without tripping down the stairs.
Article originally appeared on Technology and Faith (http://peggykendall.com/).
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