Multitasking for Online College Students

Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Tutor

Multitasking is often lauded as a way for busy professionals and students to accomplish multiple tasks in less time, but multitasking can often be detrimental, especially in online learning.   While there are opportunities for meaningful multitasking in online learning, it should be approached strategically with some important caveats in mind.

First, online synchronous meetings like seminars, regular course meetings, study dates, and tutorial sessions should be treated like face to face meetings, not as opportunities to multitask.   While students may be tempted to attend to other tasks or obligations while participating in online meetings, doing so most often results in students not being able to pay full attention to what is going on in the meeting.   For example, students sometimes drop in for our academic support centers’  live tutoring sessions while they are attending to their children.  This may be fine – as long as the children are napping or occupied – but can result in unproductive sessions if the children are loud, upset,  boisterous, or demanding the student’s attention.  This is one reason that, in most physical classrooms and academic support centers, students, faculty, and tutors bringing their children on campus is the exception and not the rule.

Similarly students studying online are often tempted by the knowledge that their favorite social media outlet, web site, or unanswered text message is just a tab or an arm’s length away.    This is referred to as media multitasking (Paul, 2013), and clearly, students who are accessing their course materials online may feel more temptation than students who are in a physical classroom, where their use of electronics may be monitored or even prohibited.

However, students should avoid the temptation to comment on that status or respond to that text.  According to psychologist Larry Rosen, tasks like e-mailing, updating or checking social media, or texting while learning and studying, while they seem quite simple, “draw on the same mental resources—using language, parsing meaning—demanded by schoolwork”  (as cited in Paul, 2013).   Other negative effects of media multitasking include more time spent on the schoolwork, brain fatigue from constantly switching from one task to another, impaired memory, decreased ability to transfer learning, and, possibly, a lower grade point average (Paul, 2013).

How can online students manage the temptations of multitasking?   First, they should ensure that their family members and friends realize that online learning is real learning.  Just because students access their courses and tutoring online, does not mean that they can also simultaneously take care of children, converse with others, or cook dinner.  Students can, however, leverage the easy accessibility of online learning to take full advantage of any down times in their schedules.   For example, they can access course materials, discussions, and texts while they are waiting for appointments or standing in line.   Secondly, Rosen (as cited in Barshay, 2011) recommends that one way students can maintain focus is to  schedule “tech breaks”, or allotted small blocks of time that they allow themselves to engage in social media, e-mailing, and texting.   These tech breaks, Rosen (as cited in Barshay, 2011) suggests, will help students quell the urges to check social media or messages while studying and stay engaged with the learning task at hand and can even be used as a reward of sorts for staying on task. Rosen (as cited in Barshay, 2011) also suggests other ways to refocus, including hiking, yoga, art, and music.  Spending quality time with family and friends is also an excellent way for students to reward themselves for a job well-done!

By understanding how and when to multitask, online learners can more effectively manage their time and work smarter not harder!  What are some of your top suggestions for successful multitasking?




Barshay, J. (2011).   How a “tech break” can help students refocus.  Retrieved from

Paul, A.M. (2013).  You’ll never learn!: Students can’t resist multitasking, and it’s impairing their memory.  Retrieved from

5 Responses

  1. Bill says:

    Multitasking is over rated. One thing at a time. Quality may result! Bill

  2. kuwcnews says:

    David, thank you for sharing this post with your students. Online learning is great, but breaks away from the computer are a necessity.

  3. kuwcnews says:

    Thanks, KB! Telling students to not multitask may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but there is a lot of research to support that multitasking does not always work well. Thank you for sharing this post with your students.

  4. David Healey says:

    I am going to save this post to share with students. We often talk about the need for breaks away from the computer—walking the dog, working out, or doing anything outdoorsy! We then return to the keyboard feeling refreshed.

  5. Amy, right on once again! Loved it and forwarded it to my students. It is so hard to get them to believe the stat’s on how bad multitasking can be, hope this great article will help. KB

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