Multitasking Students, Metacognition, and Memory: Lessons from the Attention Matters! Project

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

What do you know about attention – and what do your students know? This session presents findings from Attention Matters!, a project aimed at developing student metacognition. Participants will test their knowledge of attention and memory, challenge common misconceptions, and formulate plans for applying these concepts at their own institutions.


Michelle D. Miller is Director of the First Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and President's Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller's academic background is in cognitive psychology; her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-created the First Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a Redesign Scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology (Harvard University Press, 2014), and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general-interest publications including College Teaching, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, and The Conversation. Dr. Miller's current work focuses on using psychological principles to help instructors create more effective and engaging learning experiences, and to help students become more effective learners.

Extended Abstract


Consider the following claims about attention, memory, and multitasking:

  • The best way to get class material to stick in memory is by re-reading it.
  • It’s possible to learn “by osmosis,” in other words, picking up information in the background while you do something else.
  • Some people are naturally able to multitask without any loss to performance.
  • Taking notes by hand produces superior memory than taking notes on a laptop.
  • Taking tests detracts from learning.
  • Multitasking is much more difficult than most people realize.


Are these claims true, false, or debatable? The answers matter, because attention matters – for memory, for learning, and for using technology in ways that help us rather than hold us back.

Particularly in the case of students pursuing higher education, knowing the facts about how attention works is a key aspect of metacognition – in other words, understanding how one’s own thought processes work and how to direct those processes to accomplish goals. Students who understand the limitations of attention, know the right strategies for remembering information, and have the skills to self-manage both of these processes are better placed to succeed in both face-to-face and online courses.

However, misconceptions about attention and memory are common, not only among traditional-aged college students but among the population at large (Chabris & Simons, 2010; Simons & Chabris, 2011). Traditional psychology courses are one venue where these misconceptions might be addressed and more accurate information instilled in their place; however, a semester-long course may not be practical (Miller & Doherty, 2018).  Freestanding study skills courses also may not address these issues in a targeted way, nor reach the largest possible cross-section of students.  

Student beliefs and behaviors relating to attention have been particularly relevant in recent debates over the use of mobile technology in class. Much of this discussion has focused on top-down, instructor-focused policymaking, such as punitive policies forbidding the use of personal devices in class or requiring that all notetaking be done on paper (Berry & Westfall, 2017; Lang, 2017; Miller, 2014, 2015; Straumshein, 2015). However, such policies are often ignored by students (Berry & Westfall, 2017), cause problems with accommodation, accessibility, and inclusion (Godden & Womack, 2016), and do not translate well into blended and online learning environments. Importantly, they also deprive students of the opportunity to develop their own self-regulation and metacognitive skills (Miller, 2014, 2015; see also Kornell & Bjork, 2007).

To address these concerns, the Attention Matters! module was developed. The goal of the project was to change student beliefs about attention and memory in ways that would support better study practices and better management of distracting technologies. Attention Matters! uses demonstrations, videos, and short written overviews to convey key points about attention, memory, and learning, emphasizing the need for active engagement, the limitations of attention especially when we are attempting to multitask, and positive steps students can take including self-quizzing (i.e., retrieval practice) and putting devices away during class and study time. It is designed to fit as an extra credit activity assigned within a range of existing university courses, taking about two hours to complete.

In 2015, Attention Matters! won an Effective Practice Award from the Online Learning Consortium, and has now been completed by over 1,200 students at its home institution. As part of the module, student participants have completed two surveys, one on beliefs about attention, multitasking, and memory (the Counterproductive Beliefs Survey) and one on the frequency with which they multitask in different settings (work, class, social situations) and with different media (texts, email, video). Thus, the project has now yielded not only tested materials and methods that can be adapted across a wide variety of settings, but also important empirical findings on metacognition, learning, and multitasking among college students.

Session Description

This session will offer an overview of the Attention Matters! project and approach, with an emphasis on what we have learned from this project over the last four years and how that knowledge can be used to promote student metacognition and better choices relating to multitasking, attention, and studying among college students. Detailed research findings on changes to beliefs as a function of the module will be presented, as long as an overview of statistical associations between counterproductive beliefs and real-world multitasking.

It will also engage the audience in discussion about some of the commonest misconceptions about attention, multitasking, and learning, and will provide a concise overview of findings from the research literature on attention that are most relevant to educators.

At the conclusion of the session, participants will reflect individually and briefly share their ideas regarding how they will put the lessons of the Attention Matters! project into practice as instructors, instructional designers, or leaders at their own institutions.

Session Outcomes

After this session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify common misconceptions about attention and related cognitive processes such as memory
  • Explain the importance of attention for learning and the consequences of multitasking and other mismanagement of attention during learning
  • Summarize the approach and features of the Attention Matters! module and how it can be adapted for use in a variety of settings
  • Summarize the advantages of developing student metacognition and self-regulation abilities over top-down, instructor-focused policies on technology
  • Describe the main empirical findings generated by Attention Matters! to date

Participants will also leave with a set of written reflections, shared via fillable online form (with alternatives provided), on how they will put this knowledge into practice.


Session Approach, Topics, and Activities

The session opens with a survey activity that participants can take via their mobile devices or through alternative means. It follows with content presentation alternating with other interactive components including brief table discussion, a surprise quiz to reinforce session concepts as well as demonstrate the concept of retrieval practice, and a closing reflection on applying the findings and approach of Attention Matters! at participants’ home institutions.

The following outline includes details on each section of the session:

  1. Rapid online pre-survey: What do you know about attention? (Interactive quiz and discussion)
    1. Select items from the Counterproductive Beliefs Survey
      1. Participants take the survey via PollEverywhere
      2. Screen reader friendly PDFs and print copies will also be available
    2. Scoring and discussion of the items
  2. About Attention: Selected theories and findings from cognitive science (Content presentation with slide show)
  3. Background and context on the Attention Matters! project (Content presentation with slide show)
    1. Origin, structure, and features
    2. Structure and features of the three units within the Attention Matters module
    3. Assessment and research data generated by the project
      1. Do beliefs change as a function of taking the module?
      2. Do beliefs relating to attention predict real-world multitasking behaviors?
      3. What do students say about the experience?
      4. How have the Attention Matters! materials been adapted for use at other institutions?
  4. Quick Review (Surprise quiz using Kahoot!)
  5. Building Student Metacognition (Content Presentation with slide show and audience participation in the form of examples and interspersed Q and A)
    1. Retrieval practice
    2. Attention and multitasking
    3. Choices involving in-class technology
  6. Take-Aways and a Call to Action (Individual online reflection and brief sharing)
    1. What do you most want to share with your students/students of faculty you work with about attention?
    2. How might you accomplish that sharing?


Universal Design for Learning Features

The session is consciously designed to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (e.g., Tobin & Behling, 2018).  It features a variety of activities, media, and opportunities for engaging with the content including traditional presentation with slides, audience Q and A, online quizzing and commentary, group discussion and individual reflection. Slide decks contain full alternative text for all images and reading order optimized for screen readers, and printed materials are disseminated in several alternative formats.



Berry, M. J., & Westfall, A. (2017). Dial D for Distraction: The Making and Breaking of Cell Phone Policies in the College Classroom. College Teaching, 63(2), 62–71.

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York: Crown.

Godden, R., & Womack, A.-M. (2016). Making Disability Part of the Conversation: Combatting Inaccessible Spaces and Logics. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from

Miller, M.D. (2014, December). Tweet and You’ll Miss It. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Miller, M. D. (2015). Can millennials pay attention to classwork while texting , tweeting and being on Facebook ? The Conversation, (June 26).

Miller, M. D., & Doherty, J. J. (2018). Online activities for teaching students about technology, distraction, and learning. In R. Harnish (Ed.), The Impact of Technology on How Instructors Teach and How Students Learn. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (2011). What people believe about how memory works: A representative survey of the U.S. population. PLoS ONE, 6(8).

Straumshein, C. (2015, June). Take Note. Inside Higher Ed.

Tobin, T., & Behling, K. Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.