What Are the Effects of Multitasking?

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SWBAT plan and carry out an experiment that answers the question "how does multitasking effect our work?"

Big Idea

Listening to music, doing jumping jacks, yelling at the dog while creating a play-doh model of the brain - students test the idea of multitasking!


5 minutes

As I look across my study hall I see students working on their homework while listening to music, talking with friends, and staring off into space lost in thought or day dreams.  These students believe that they are successfully multitasking and that the quality of their work is not affected as they participate in this variety of activities.  There have been numerous scientific studies that tell us our brains cannot successfully multitask but students seem to think that somehow they are immune to this limitation of the brain.  This presents the perfect opportunity for students to design an experiment of their own to determine the effect of multitasking (SP3).  Additionally this allows students to begin to recognize that all people's brains work differently which is the focus of the next lesson.

I begin the lesson by asking the students "How many of you believe you are good multitaskers?"  I call on several students to share their thoughts/reasoning for their answers.  I continue the lesson by showing this short video clip from Mythbusters.

I have students identify the question being investigated in this video (are men or women better at multitasking).  This is important as the question in the video is different from the one students will be investigating.


35 minutes

I use any excuse to provide students with opportunities to practice designing an experiment on their own.  I feel that this is an essential skill for students to master before they begin high school.  

To introduce students with their experimental design challenge I give them the following instructions:

Design an experiment that addresses the idea of how multitasking impacts our work.  

I leave this deliberately vague so that students create testable questions and identify the variables on their own. We learned these skills in prior lessons, and now I want students to apply what they've learned.

Your task is to create an experiment to collect data showing the impact of multitasking on work. Your test must include at least three activities/tasks (you can include more) tested at the same time and be tested on at least eight people who are NOT part of your group. (Tip: at this point I talk to students briefly about bias in experimentation)

Your tasks must be specific and clearly stated to your test subjects so they know exactly what to do. Results must be able to be displayed on a graph (quantitative data). 

I instruct students to use and follow the Experiment Design Outline to ensure they include all requirements.  I also encourage (strongly suggest) that students keep video and/or photo documentation of their experimental procedure and outcomes.  I do this for several reasons:

  • This allows students to reference their data repeatedly which help them go deeper in the analysis of their data.  
  • Students can use the videos/pictures in their presentation of findings which makes the presentation more interesting and understandable for the audience.  
  • It allows the class to evaluate the accuracy of various methods for collecting data (SP3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations) 
  • Students can analyze and interpret data to determine similarities and differences of findings (SP4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data)
  • Students can compare and critique 2 arguments on the same topic and analyze whether they emphasize similar or different evidence and/or interpretation of facts (SP7: Engaging in Argument From Evidence).

This video is an example of a student experiment.


  1. Make sure to facilitate, not solve, as students struggle with refining and explaining their plan. While it is appropriate to perhaps take what students say to you and rephrase to help refine their thinking, it isn’t appropriate to tell them they are right, wrong, or just outright tell them what to do.  This allows students the opportunity to reflect on their work and either fix it during the process (if time allows) or recognize the error during their presentation and state how they would have fixed the problem if time allows.  Either way students learn more than they would if they were just provided with directions to follow.
  2. Students will want to rush through the designing of the lab to get to the fun stuff.  Be sure to slow them down, especially when writing out the procedure they will follow.  Ensure they clearly identify how they will control the experiment to ensure they obtain reliable results (what are their controlled variables and how will they ensure they remain constant?) I use Student Task List-Multitasking Lab Design and Student Task List Drawing Conclusions checklists to help students stay focused while still working independently during different portions of the project.
  3. Be sure students have created a data table to organize the data prior to beginning the experiment.  Again, don't tell them if their design is right or wrong; allow them the opportunity to discover this as they are working.  If you notice a group has a poorly designed data table, be sure to check in on them early in their testing process to assist them is "discovering" their errors and facilitating their redesign.
  4. Have students complete this project in manageable chunks.  The following is the format I follow:


5 minutes

I use the last 5 minutes of class to have students brainstorm a list of materials they will need to conduct their test and determine which group member will be responsible for bringing which items.  I ask them to write down any materials they will need from me on a post it, along with their names, and place it on my desk so that I can have some students in study hall start organizing material kits for students.

Post Activity Notes: Once students complete their lab and write up, each group will put together a short presentation that includes the following three parts:

  • what did you do (video of experiment or live demo)
  • what did you learn (conclusion)
  • is your data reliable/can we trust your conclusion, WHY OR WHY NOT?

There is no penalty for students that recognize their data does not truly address/answer the focus question - it is great if they recognize errors such as that.  

The following video is a portion of a student group giving their presentation, which includes a demonstration of their experiment, stating their conclusion, and explaining if their results are reliable.


 Following all presentation, I provide students with this Multitasking Article to read and summarize in their journals.  As a reflection, I ask students to write a paragraph that compares the information found in the article with the information they collected from their experiments.  I like to do this as it reinforces the idea that our brains are not wired to do more than one task at a time and it allows students who might have gotten opposite results to consider why that may have occurred. Multitasking Article Connection Student Examples are good exemplars of what I was looking for with this portion of the assignment.