At a recent meeting with business leaders, University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides said for all the good things he sees every day, he has documented a persistent and troublesome behavior among many students: They are always open and available for interruptions via texts and tweets — during lectures, while doing class assignments, while reading books or articles.
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For many students, reading incoming texts and tweets takes priority over nearly everything else: talking, eating, walking, sleeping, reading, writing, concentration and contemplation.
But as Dr. Pastides noted, the greatest insights and creations — such as E=MC², the double helix, the Fifth Symphony and On the Origin of Species — resulted from ideas being conceived over time with the adroit management of interruptions. For Einstein, Watson and Crick, Beethoven and Darwin, the priority was always solving a problem, completing the task.
The problem Dr. Pastides described is not the cell phone as a piece of remarkable technology that allows for communication anywhere in the world at any time. The home telephone, the radio, the television and the desktop computer were essential to the evolution of the cell phone; the cell phone is an essential step toward technology that may follow, including, perhaps, communication chip implants under the skin and wireless brainwave transmission.
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The question is whether we can learn to control the distraction of the technology.
Is this student behavior simply that old nemesis, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder? Or can any student be taught to pay full attention to one contemplative task?
Researcher Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, finds that “a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.”
In one study, by Alessandro Acquisti and others at Carnegie Mellon, students were randomly assigned to either a control or experimental group. The control group was asked simply to perform a reading-comprehension test. Members of the experimental group took the same test but received several interruptions by instant message; they scored well below the control group.
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In a second test, the experimental group members were also asked to perform the reading comprehension test, and were told that they could expect to receive an instant message. The message never came. But by knowing they might be interrupted, and by concentrating on the task, the experimental group outperformed the control group.
On the one hand, students can be trained to defer the gratification of mindless interruption by texts, tweets and friending if they can be convinced that the benefits of not yielding to such interruptions are worthwhile. Say, graduation in four years or less, lower student loan balances, getting a satisfying job upon graduation to help pay back those loans quickly and, for the particularly ambitious, following Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis, who grew up in Columbia and attended Dreher High School.
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On the other hand, students and adults can be assured, with reason and example, that being willingly interrupted by social media while in class or studying or while driving, sharing meals, doing business or talking with friends is fraught with an inevitable degradation of performance in school, in business, in driving down the street and in face-to-face relationships.
Oh, and lest you get the wrong idea, Dr. Pastides is no stranger to instant communication. You can follow his latest tweeted musings on higher education @HarrisPastides — and we can all hope they won’t interrupt his students in their pursuit of knowledge.
Dr. Smith is president of Metromark Research and a clinical research assistant professor of internal medicine at the USC School of Medicine; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.