Join student clubs. Go to your professor’s office hours. If you’re feeling down, talk with someone about it. And please, don’t drink too much.



Join student clubs. Go to your professor’s office hours. If you’re feeling down, talk with someone about it. And please, don’t drink too much.

Welcome to the typical freshman orientation at an American college, where we hand out advice like candy (or, on some campuses, like condoms). But here’s one piece of wisdom our newcomers don’t hear nearly enough: Close your windows.

I’m talking about those distracting windows on your computer. A sizable body of research shows that people learn and perform much better when they focus on one thing at a time. Isn’t that something every freshman should know?

Ditto for research about reading, which indicates that you retain more when you read in print than on a screen. As more and more course material goes online, we need to let our students in on that little secret.

For the most part, though, we don’t. When it comes to all matters digital, there’s a sense that the train has already left the station. We should all be on board, encouraging more engagement with these technologies rather than less.

That’s abdication, not education. Surely digital technologies have great potential to enhance student learning. But they also present dangers, which we should explain when digital natives arrive on campus.

Start with multitasking, which is one of the great myths of contemporary life. Most of us believe that we can do several activities simultaneously with the same efficiency as if we did them one at a time.

But we’re wrong. The late Stanford professor Clifford Nass spent his career testing multitaskers, who told him — over and over again — that they were good at it. His research showed the opposite: They’re chronically distracted, which inhibits their performance in everything they do.

Indeed, Nass found, people who multitask infrequently are actually better at it than those who do it all the time. That’s because multitasking shortens our attention span. Some psychologists have even suggested that it’s "rewiring" our brains to prevent us from concentrating, especially on written texts that are longer than a tweet or an instant message.

There’s also plenty of evidence that we read less carefully on screens than in print, even when we’re not doing other things at the same time. Experiments with eye trackers, which follow your eyes while you read, have demonstrated that we tend to skim more on screens. Other researchers have shown that scrolling creates more distraction than flipping a page, which helps explain why most of us retain more from a printed text than from a digital one.

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