Effects of online multitasking on reading comprehension of expository text


Much of college students’ computer use, including for academic reading, occurs under conditions of multitasking. In three experiments, we investigated their technology use and habitual multitasking and the learning effects of multitasking with online communication while reading expository text. In Experiment 1 (n = 35), participants engaged in a primary content learning task and a secondary communication task either sequentially or concurrently. Experiment 2 (n = 90 ) used a modified primary learning task involving reading comprehension and recall with a within-subjects design, wherein task difficulty (easy, difficult) and condition (sequential, concurrent) were within-subjects factors. Experiment 3 (n=40) used a moderately difficult task with condition (sequential, concurrent) as a within-subjects factor and a filler task for participants in the concurrent condition. Our results suggested that our college student participants were comfortable with technology and reported that on average they multitasked with four other activities while reading. Across the three experiments, we found no evidence that multitasking while reading disrupted content learning, reading comprehension, and recall. On the contrary, we found a beneficial effect of multitasking for the easy task (Experiment 2) and a trend toward a beneficial effect for the moderately difficult task (Experiment 3). We discuss possible explanations for why multitasking might enhance performance at lower levels of cognitive load and identify future directions for research.

Multitasking; learning; reading; interruptions; human computer interaction
Author biographies

Phuoc Tran

Author photo Phuoc Tran, MA is a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Oklahoma and is interested in learning and memory. He received his MA from California State University, Los Angeles and his BA from UCLA. He can be reached at jimmytr87(at)ou.edu

Rogelio Carrillo

Author photo Rogelio Carrillo, is a graduate student in psychology at the California State University, Los Angeles and is a researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles. He received his BA from California State University, Los Angeles.

Kaveri Subrahmanyam

Kaveri Subrahmanyam Kaveri Subrahmanyam, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and Associate Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles. She studies the cognitive and social implications of interactive media use and is currently researching the daily use of interactive media among youth as well as the academic and cognitive implications of multitasking. Dr. Subrahmanyam has published several research articles on youth and digital media and co-edited a special section on interactive media and human development for Developmental Psychology (2012) and a special issue on social networking for the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (2008). She is the co-author (with David Smahel) of Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development (Springer, 2011). She can be reached at ksubrah(at)calstatela.edu

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