E-learning: How to head off multitasking
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E-learning: How to head off multitasking

E-learning has plenty of advantages. But it’s also delivered over the internet, which means your learners are sitting in front of an expertly designed distraction machine. Email, chat messaging, social media — you name it — are all at their fingertips.

Learning, as your grade school teachers probably told you, requires you pay attention. So how dangerous is multitasking while e-learning – and how can you help your learners stay focused?

The research

A recent study out of Kent State University explored how problematic multitasking is among learners using e-learning compared to traditional classroom learning. It may come as no surprise that the researchers found that multitasking was significantly more prevalent during an e-learning experience than in the classroom. But the extent of the learners’ multitasking was startling.

The researchers found that learners were often using two or three devices at once (e.g. laptop, phone and tablet) during an e-learning course. Learners were also typically found to have their attention divided by multiple tasks outside of the course, such as texting, email, social media, off-task internet searches, listening to music and talking to others — sometimes all during the same e-learning lesson.

What’s worse, learners’ own beliefs about multitasking don’t match the reality. For example, learners who have positive beliefs about multitasking don’t put any constraints on their distractions. So left to their own devices, their multitasking skyrockets during e-learning courses. If that wasn’t bad enough, learners who measured high in self-motivation and self-control, or what the study calls “self-efficacy for self-regulated learning,” weren’t any better at resisting the temptation to multitask than their less disciplined peers.

With these discouraging findings, is there any way to win the battle against multitasking? Another study out of a South Korean university may have some answers.

How to keep learners on task

To explore the effects of multitasking during e-learning, the researchers divided study participants into two groups – a “low-distraction” group and a “high-distraction” group. Both groups were told they had to complete an e-learning course as their primary task. But the high-distraction group was told they were permitted to do whatever they wanted while completing the course, like surf the web or use web chat messaging. On the other hand, the low-distraction group was warned against multitasking during the course.

Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers found that the high-distraction group only intently watched the e-learning video about 75 percent of the time and spent the other time multitasking. As a result, when both groups were given a quiz on what they learned, the high-distraction group scored 15 percent lower.

See if you can match this

In a follow-up study, the researchers tried something different.

Instead of using the same e-learning video, they gave the participants a pattern-matching test. The rest of the study remained the same. And something interesting happened – the low- and high-distraction groups scored exactly the same on the quiz.

So why the dramatic change? The task was different, of course, but that wasn’t the true cause of the increased performance, according to the researchers. It was something that changed within the learners themselves: motivation.

The matching test engaged the learners, causing them to pay more attention to the task at hand and less time distracted by the temptations of the internet. Because the pattern-matching test felt more like a challenge, they felt invested in the outcome and motivated to perform well.

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to run out and “gamify” your e-learning content. But it does mean that motivation and engagement can focus learners in the face of countless distractions. Here are some recommendations based on the research for how to motivate your learners to invest in workplace learning and keep their eyes on the prize.


Make it personal.

A proven way to get learners engaged with learning material is to stress how applicable it is to their daily lives. Therefore, your organization’s messaging around workplace learning should emphasize how these new skills will help them be more successful, which can lead to more recognition and more opportunities for growth. Workplace learning is a benefit, not a chore. When learners see how training benefits them personally, it motivates them to invest.

Ask learners to engage with the material.

A comprehensive workplace learning program asks learners to engage with the training content in a variety of ways. It can take many forms, from quizzes and assessments to discussions with peers to mentoring sessions with their manager. The key is to get learners to think deeply about the material and how they can use it to grow and improve.   

Focus on results.

Nothing inspires learners like a small win. Once a learner applies a new skill and accomplishes something positive, it builds momentum, engagement and trust in the training program. So encourage learners to celebrate the big and small successes they achieve through learning – it will keep them focused, motivated and committed.


Lepp, A., et al. (2019). College students’ multitasking behavior in online versus face-to-face courses. SAGE Open. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244018824505

Song, K. S., et al. (2013). Analysis of youngsters’ media multitasking behaviors and effect on learning. International Journal of Multimedia and Ubiquitous Engineering, 8(4), 191-198.

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