Teach multiple concepts with research into multi-tasking

Who are the better multi-taskers, men or women?

Two years ago a Google search might have yielded the answer women to the question above. Today the same search might tell you that actually men are better at completing several competing tasks. So which one is right?

On August 6th 2012 the BPS Research Digest (RD) blog Tweeted a link to a summary of research suggesting that men, not women, were better at multi-tasking. This is obviously contrary to the commonly held assumption that women are more superior in this area (presumably related to working mums juggling work, child care and household responsibilities). Research Digest also Tweeted in the same day a link to research from 2010 which supported the stereotypical view that it is females that are the competent multi-taskers.

These contrasting findings have the potential to enable a number of important Psychology wide concepts to be explored, including the difference between so called “common-sense” and evidence-based sources of knowledge, issues of gender bias and a number of research methods concepts.

Conflicting evidence

The article entitled “Why Men (Yes, Men) Are Better Multi-taskers” (reported in the Huffington Post, online newspaper, 3rd August 2012) reports research that supports the researcher’s (Timo Mantyla of Stockholm University) prediction that men are better multi-taskers than women due to a combination of executive function (remembering and updating goals) and superior spatial reasoning (e.g. being able to keep and think around a mental timeline of events).

An article published online in various sources two years ago including ScienceDaily (19th July 2010) entitled “First Concrete Evidence That Women Are Better Multitaskers Than Men“, however,  described research that found that males and females performed equally on a number of tasks supposedly designed to measure multi-tasking but that females outperformed males on a particular “lost key” task, requiring planning and monitoring several other tasks. This research was carried out by Professor Keith Laws of the University of Hertfordshire.

In the A Level Psychology classroom

These examples of conflicting findings and bold headline claims make a perfect vehicle for exploring a range of issues. Here are some ideas for turning this into a classroom activity.

Where does our knowledge come from?

Ask students the question relating to who is better at multi-tasking, men or women.

Encourage students to question where their knowledge comes from. Have they heard there is evidence or have they been told this information and assumed it was true? How true is “common-sense”?  If they said women, ask students does this mean that girls are better multi-taskers than boys? If students start referring to male and female brain differences, ask them how they know this and where the evidence would come from.

You could ask students to design a study to test whether there are gender differences in multi-tasking, focussing on how they might operationalise “multi-tasking” and how they might avoid their research methods containing sources of gender bias.

Cross purposes

After the initial discussion, present half the class with one of the pieces of research mentioned above and the other half with the other, making sure students think they all have the same research to review. This could involve either presenting them with the articles or summaries of the main points of the studies. Ask students to evaluate the research in front of them and write a list of questions they might like to ask the researcher given the opportunity, in order to assess the quality of the research and draw conclusions. You could also ask students to design a follow up study, taking it further.

Initiate a discussion about the research they have read about and unravel the confusion when they start to realise that they have been looking at two opposing findings. Ask them to consider if they were a peer review board approving the research for publication, which would they choose or what would their recommendation be? Interestingly the 2010 research (Prof Laws, Herts Uni) does not seem to be published in a journal and is described in one source as “informal” research. The study reported this month in the press, however, is due to be published in the journal Psychological Science (a journal that prides itself on publishing cutting edge research employing novel methods).

Headline news

Display the headlines of the articles featured in this post and ask students if they have the potential to be misleading and how they might re-word them in light of their analysis of the research concerned. You could include the headline from another related article from The Telegraph (17th July 2010), reporting Law’s research, which read “Scientists prove that women are better at multitasking than men“. Interestingly The Telegraph article glosses over the gender similarities in performance, focussing only on the “lost key” findings.

Final words

Two of the articles end with a line which could be used for discussion.

The Huffington Post (author Wray Herbert): “Perhaps the most important lesson here is to remain skeptical of the popular wisdom until it’s put to a rigorous test“.

The Telegraph (author Richard Gray): “It shows that women are better at being able to stand back and reflect for a moment while they are juggling other things.”

Students could discuss whether the research described supports the broad conclusion drawn by the Telegraph and whether they think the research described represents a “rigorous test”.


2 thoughts on “Teach multiple concepts with research into multi-tasking

  1. Thank you to Professor Keith Laws (University of Hertfordshire) who very kindly responded to my email request for clarification (and indulged me on some further questions) re the publication of the research that showed females to be the better multi-taskers. The research is planned for publication but is part of a larger ongoing study. Prof Laws also clarified that the disappearance of the usual male advantage for spatial tasks when multi-tasking is quite actually more telling than my post suggested and helps to support the idea of a female superiority for completing tasks simultaneously when taken together with the “lost key” task findings. Looking forward to reading both pieces of published work included in this post in the future.

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