Students who send and receive instant messages while completing a reading assignment take longer to get through their texts but apparently still manage to understand what they’re reading, according to one of the first studies to explore how the practice affects academic learning.
“Students who are managing busy lives may think they are accomplishing more by multitasking, but they will actually need more time to achieve the same level of performance on an academic task,” said Laura L. Bowman, a psychology professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
Ms. Bowman and her colleagues based their conclusions on a study of 59 college students who were tracked in a university laboratory while they read a selection from a college psychology textbook on a computer screen and received instant messages. The researchers presented their findings today during the annual meeting here of the American Psychological Association, a Washington-based group representing 148,000 psychologists and educators.
For the experiment, students were randomly assigned to take part in one of three groups. The first group read the text on screen with no interruptions. The second group answered instant messages first and then did their reading. The third group multitasked, fielding instant messages as they read. Instant messaging is a form of real-time online written communication that is faster than normal e-mail.
More Time on Task
The messages, which included questions such as “What classes are you taking this semester?” were designed to be typical in context and in frequency to the instant messages students would normally receive on their computers.
Even after taking into account the time students spent on the instant messaging, the researchers found, the third group took about 15 minutes longer than the other two groups to complete the reading—roughly 50 percent more time than the other two groups took.
All three groups, however, fared about the same on a test given later on to check their understanding of the text. The researchers said that last finding runs counter to other studies of students’ electronic media use, which suggest that students’ academic performance suffers when, for example, a television is playing in the background.
A study the authors published last year, in fact, found that students who reported high use of electronic media were more likely than avid book readers to have problems with becoming distracted in their reading.
“We thought for sure that we were going to find that the multitasking students were going to show a decrement in performance,” said Ms. Bowman.
Pausing to Reread?
Researchers theorized that one reason that the multitasking students did as well—but took longer—may be that they went back and reread passages after they paused to answer instant messages.
Study co-author Laura E. Levine, an associate professor of psychology at Central Connecticut, said that, although their study focuses on college-age students, the findings probably also hold true for younger students, many of who are also regular users of instant messaging on their home computers.
Their study is one of several on the effects of electronic technology on learning that are due to be presented at the August 14-17 meeting. Other studies focus on video games and how they affect learning or children’s predisposition to take part in violent activities.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week