By Sharmin Shanur
UCI Professor of Neurobiology Michael Leon held a workshop last Tuesday, April 4, explaining the downfalls of multitasking. Much of this workshop was catered to professors and teaching assistants, who are looking to help their students retain class information years after college.
Professor Leon began his workshop by noting that humans have extraordinary memory. After presenting a video about Stephen Wiltshire, an art prodigy who can accurately draw an entire city by looking it for just a few minutes, Professor Leon established that the human brain has the capability to remember unfathomable amounts of information. Professor Leon questioned how UCI’s instructors can help their students cultivate that kind of memory. He answered, “students must avoid multitasking.”
Professor Leon argued that humans cannot multitask. When students think they are multitasking, they are actually switching from one task to the next over and over again. This means that they do not focus on any one activity because their brains are constantly shifting gears. When listening to music or texting while studying, human brains don’t properly consolidate school work into long-term memory. Creating long-term memory requires deep concentration and, by compromising such attentiveness, students are ensuring they will not retain what they have learned in class later on.
Professor Leon also noted that multitasking leads to stress, which leads to hippocampal damage. The human hippocampus is responsible for creating memory, and damage in that area means that humans cannot form long-term memories efficiently.
Furthermore, he said that students are “fake studiers.” By procrastinating and cramming information the night before a test, students are placing information in their short-term memory, which means that when the test is over, the learned information essentially vanishes from the brain. According to Professor Leon, human brains only remember things that are evolutionarily beneficial, like emotionally-charged events and facts that will ensure our survival. School, he said, has never been an evolutionary trait. So, when it comes to school work, student brains are not programmed to retain such information.
However, Professor Leon acknowledged that the outlook for students is not so bleak. After laying out the detriments, he explained to his fellow professors and teaching assistants that there are remedies to this problem.
The first is repetition. If students are repeatedly exposed to a particular body of information, their brains are unconsciously informed that the information is important and requires retention. The way professors can go about doing this, he said, is by covering less material and giving more cumulative exams so students can be repeatedly tested on past information.
However, the job of information retention does not solely lie on the professor. Students must also stop scrolling Facebook during class or texting while studying in order to ensure their brains are completely focused on one task. According to Professor Leon, Halting multitasking just while studying can have huge benefits on grades, but it also establishes more self control when it comes to other brain-straining tasks. If students can just put down their phones and social media while studying, Professor Leon said that students wouldn’t leave college with no memory of what they spent years learning.
To Professor Leon, it is time for universities to start reevaluating their importance and for students to start working harder to remember what they learned in college.