Look, there’s a rock…

Ms Natalie Smith, Dean of Studies and Planning

‘Do you have a lower attention span than a goldfish?’ This provocative question is the title of an article by Aamna Mohdin (2015) following the publication of a study commissioned by the Microsoft Corporation, which found that the average human attention span has dropped from twelve seconds in 2002 to eight seconds in 2013 putting humans after goldfish which have an attention span of nine seconds.

The study involved a survey of 2 000 Canadians over the age of eighteen, followed by the use of EEG (electroencephalography) to examine the brain activity of more than 100 participants. Researchers found a decrease in human attention span across all age groups and genders. According to the study, ‘forty-four per cent of Canadians have to “concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks”, and forty-five per cent get “side tracked from what they’re doing by unrelated thoughts or day dreams”’(Mohdin, 2015). The researchers correlated the inability to focus on a single task to the adoption of technology, the volume of media consumption, use of social media and multi-screen behaviour. The study went on to suggest that people’s long-term focus is being diminished by increased digital consumption (Mohdin, 2015).

If this is the case, what are the implications of this erosion of cognitive attention for our society as a whole and — in our context here at Brisbane Girls Grammar School — for our students?

Research conducted by Rosen, Carrier and Cheever (as cited in Paul, 2013) focusing on the effects of media multitasking on students’ learning, found that it does have an impact. 263 middle school, high school and college students were observed as they studied over a fifteen minute period. Participants in this study were asked to ‘study something important, including homework, an upcoming examination or project, or reading a book for a course’. During this time, the observers marked down once a minute what the students were doing as they studied. The check-list included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer, using email, looking at Facebook, engaging in instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, doing schoolwork and surfing the Web. It was noted that students’ ‘on-task’ activity started to decline after the two-minute mark as they responded to text messages or checked their Facebook feeds. It was observed that, over the fifteen minutes, only about sixty-five per cent of the time was used by students for doing their school work.

According to Annie Paul (2013), attending to multiple streams of information and entertainment while studying, doing homework and sitting in class has become common behaviour among young people. She further points to evidence that suggests that ‘when students multitask while doing their schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have a greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts’. The problem with media multitasking while doing schoolwork is that activities such as texting, emailing, posting on Facebook are mentally complex activities which draw on the same mental resources — using language and parsing meaning — as those demanded by schoolwork.

After studying the effects of divided attention on learning, Professor David Meyer of the University of Michigan (as cited in Paul, 2013) states that

The brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can only happen when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. However, doing homework and being on Facebook, each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

The negative outcomes that occur when students multitask are well documented.

First, assignments take longer to finish. This is due to both the time spent on the other activities and the time required for the student to re-familiarise themselves with the assignment material once they return to it.

Second, increased mental fatigue caused by repeatedly dropping and picking up mental threads can lead to an increase in errors. There is a high cognitive cost to switching between tasks. For example, a student who responds to emails while writing an English essay is constantly switching between using the formal, precise language required for the English essay and the casual style of language required for the email. This can be exhausting.

Third, the memory of what students are working on (learning) also becomes impaired. This is especially true if attention is divided right at the moment of encoding (original saving) the memory. Distraction can lead to the brain processing and storing information in different, less useful ways.

Meyer sees the long-term problem being the possibility of ‘raising a generation that is learning more shallowly than young people in the past. The depth of their processing information is considerably less, because of all the distractions available to them as they learn’ (as cited in Paul, 2013). ‘Given that these distractions aren’t going away, academic and even professional achievement may depend on the ability to ignore digital temptations while learning’ (Paul, 2013).

Forty years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the famous ‘Marshmallow Test’, which found that children who displayed greater levels of delayed gratification were more likely to succeed with school and in their careers. In an updated, information-age equivalent of Mischel’s Marshmallow Test, Rosen and his team of researchers tested a group of college students by asking them to watch a thirty-minute videotaped lecture. During the lecture, some students were sent two text messages while others were sent four or zero text messages. When asked to complete a test on the content of the videotaped lecture afterwards, results showed that those students who were interrupted more, performed worse than those who weren’t interrupted. An interesting discovery was that, of those students who received text messages, the students who replied straight away performed more poorly on the test than those students who waited until the end of the lecture to reply (Rosen et al. as cited in Paul, 2013).

So where does this lead us? What are the implications for teachers and parents, for students and children? What sort of structures or disciplines do we need to put into our classrooms and our homes to assist our students to become more focused when they are learning? The first step must be to develop within our students a consciousness or awareness of their behaviour and then to assist them to develop strategies and techniques to counter distractions. After all, the world is a complex place requiring complex solutions to complex problems that will need greater attention than a goldfish can give us.


Mohdin, A. (2015, May 18). Do you have a lower attention span than a goldfish? IFL Science. Retrieved from http://www.iflscience.com/brain/do-you-have-lower-attention-span-goldfish

Paul, A. M. (2013, May 3). You’ll never learn. The Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/05/multitasking_while_studying_divided_attention_and_technological_gadgets.2.html