Don’t look now, but your learners are multi-tasking. Regardless of the age group your class belongs to, the delivery mode of your training, or how carefully you’ve constructed your lesson, in today’s world, it’s rare to gain your learners’ full attention.

Multi-tasking may be a learner’s preference or the result of a demanding job, but either way, it’s a pretty sure bet that learners are switching back and forth between their online coursework and other tasks.

Typically, designers of online training don’t tend to spend much time thinking about the multi-tasking habits of their learners. With the learners out of sight, the fact that a host of other media sources compete for their attention seems like a non-issue. Learners who switch away from an online course for a moment to answer the phone don’t create a classroom management problem the way they would in a live classroom. And, in any event, there’s very little an online learning instructor can do to prevent students from multi-tasking.

Does it really matter?

Multi-tasking is more than a classroom management problem. It’s also a distraction that lengthens the time a learner takes to complete a task, and impedes the learner’s ability to complete the task accurately.

More than that, multi-taskers don’t learn as deeply as their counterparts who work through the lessons without distraction. One study (Foerde, et al., 2006), found multi-taskers were more likely use the part of the brain associated with building habits to learn a new task. Their counterparts, in a single-task version of the experiment, were more likely to use the part of their brain associated with declarative memory, meaning they were more likely to be able to flexibly use the information they learned.

What to do about it

The pragmatic solution to the problem is to break the training into small, shallow sections so that learners can digest them in quick bites. If the bites are small enough, learners may be able get through an individual piece of content before they have the opportunity to switch to something else.

It’s an unsatisfying solution. Although attacking content in small pieces may help boost course completion rates, it’s unlikely (with some exceptions) to be thorough enough to address the learners’ training needs. Content worth teaching generally deserves more exposition, explanation, and analysis than short snippets can offer. Corporate training requires employees to apply information from an online course to situations they face in the course of their jobs. In other words, they need to be able to use the course content flexibly.

Course designers and developers may not be able to influence multi-taskers to turn off their other media for the duration of a course, but they can design courses to require learners to engage in higher-order thinking. As it turns out, the relatively new problem of multi-tasking learners actually may have a relatively well-established solution: write solid course objectives, and match the instruction and the assessment to those objectives.

In addition to alerting the learners to what you expect of them, good course objectives remind you, as a course designer, what learners should be able to do when the course is completed. Bloom’s taxonomy (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation), with an accompanying list of action verbs for each of the levels, can be enormously helpful in identifying which behaviors would indicate a learner’s mastery of the course material. In many cases, those action verbs can suggest activities that would serve as good ways to build interactivity into the course. For example, if you’ve established that learners will need to work with the information at the “Application” level, knowing that learners would ultimately be required to compute, manipulate, or modify something suggests that you build certain kinds of practice into the course.

In a similar fashion, well-constructed course objectives help keep an instructional designer on track when deciding how to assess a learner’s performance. If the objectives state that learners should be able to work with the content at the “Analysis” level, assessment items should support analysis-level understanding of the content.

More than likely, the ubiquity of technology and media choices means that learner multi-tasking is here to stay. As we learn more about the demands this behavior places on the human brain, we’ll likely develop additional techniques to address them. Fortunately, the basics of instructional design provide a good starting line.


Foerde, L., Knowlton, B.J., & Poldrack, R.A. (2006). Distraction modulates the engagement of competing memory systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 11778-83.

Ophir, E., Nass, C., Wagner, A.D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Published online before print August 24, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0903620106.