Extreme multi-tasking or short attention span?

Generally, I think I have a pretty good attention span. I can work solidly on a piece of work, and stay focused for a good couple of hours, IF, I have the internet browser minimised (or even better not open at all).

There is a growing amount of press that indicates that those in Generation Y (Gen Y) have a short attention span. Other terms for the Gen Y cohort include, the Millenials, the iPod generation, the internet generation, the digital generation, among others. Gen Y refers to the years in which people were born. People are generally grouped into the following categories:

  • Baby Boomers – 1946-1963
  • Early Generation X – 1964-1976
  • Late Generation X – 1977-1981
  • Generation Y – 1982 onward

A typical Gen Y person has been generalised to have the following characteristics: high tolerance for diversity;optimistic; collaborative;  open-minded and driven. They are described as having a sense of entitlement and indispensability. Furthermore Gen Y’s attention span is short due to the advent of technology,  instant gratification and a wealth of media advertising. They are seen to be the most interested in technology and its applications. These are very broad generalisations but you get the picture. A population that has grown up with technology to see it infiltrate nearly every part of their daily life.

A piece of research has identified several Generation Y learning preferences and expectations:

“1. Doing is more important than knowing:Rapid technology advances have contributed to Generation Y having a much lower reliance on a personal knowledge database stored in their brain, and more on finding factual information at the moment it is needed.
2. A need for immediacy: Generation Y live in a 24/7 culture where there is little tolerance for delays, and like to receive information just in time and from several multimedia sources.
3. Trial and error approach to problem solving: As a result of not wanting (or needing) to accumulate knowledge, Generation Y are more interested in problem based learning.
4. Low boredom threshold: In the media, Generation Y are often described as having low boredom thresholds and short attention spans.
5. Multitasking and parallel processing: Generation Y are most comfortable when they are engaged simultaneously in multiple activities such as listening to music, texting and writing.
6. Visual, nonlinear and virtual learning Visual modes of learning are preferred by a large percentage of the population, and are especially important for Generation Y who grew up with lots of visual stimuli.
7. Collaborative learning Generation Y do not want isolated lecture based information: they value interaction, networking, active participation and staying connected – anytime, anyplace.”

Why am I talking about this? Well, when teaching (mainly university students) I find it increasingly difficult to deal with students short of attention span. Interestingly, I find the university students not only lose attention with their work, but with each other. During group discussions they are extremely bad at listening to each other and developing a line of thought. I have discussed this with a many colleagues who find themselves in similar situations. I am very open to the idea of using different methods of teaching, and I have done, yet they still don’t seem to be able maintain a sufficient level of concentration or interest. This causes problems when students are presenting for five minutes, and can’t keep focused, making discussion based sessions extremely difficult.

There is a further problem I find with Gen Y students is that they do not take the time to research topics properly, the top 10 links in Google is usually enough for them which results in essays generally filled with information from Wikipedia, BBC and a number of blogs. Despite attempts at showing them different ways to look form information, and showing them the wealth of information suitable for academic work from journals etc. This is a topic for a post another time but it’s just another aspect to problem.

Is this experience just the development of a generation who can do extreme multitasking, but actually achieve very little over a long period of time? Or is it that our environment is just more demanding and so we have adapted to carrying out a multitude of tasks at the same time ,and as a consequence can only deal with smaller chunks of information at one time?

My main question here though, what are the detrimental effects of the digital age and the changing learning expectations of Gen Y? Surely, it can’t be good to be ‘working’, checking emails, updating facebook/twitter/’insert social network of choice here’, updating the online shopping list, ordering dvds/books from Amazon, and reading the news all in two minute cycles. This is as much a criticsm of myself as it is of the observations I have made of other people. And it is for this reason I now don’t leave tabs open on my browser. I check my emails in between pieces of work, or when there is a natural break. The advantage of this is also that my students get used to the idea that I will not always reply to an email in under two minutes.

I will endeavor to keep trying different methods to engage students and extend their attention span, if even only for a few more seconds. Should I be successful I will let you know!




This entry was posted in Education, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Extreme multi-tasking or short attention span?

  1. I teach both high school and college students and have noticed the same trends. The life of the mind requires sustained thought and in-depth research skills, which these students aren’t willing or able to work on. The other main problem I see is that while technology should develop social connections (and is often promoted as doing such), I think it creates more isolation, as we find ourselves surrounded by real people and so many of them are twitting or fbking instead of having a conversation with one another face to face, in person. I have students who won’t ask me something in person during or after class, when I wait around just for that purpose, but they will go straight out and email me about it. Technology should help us meet our responsibilities, not avoid them. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  2. Precisely. Here’s that book I told you about on this topic (it’s on the “popular science” genre, so don’t expect world class research):


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s