What I learnt in class

Latha Vydianathan

I had the opportunity to sit in on a class that was unrelated to my field of English Language teaching and here is my collective takeaway.

  • Be a student

If you can tear yourself away from your busy schedule, take the time to go sit in a class simply to observe. Choose a class that is not in your discipline. This will ensure that you don’t get bogged down by the theories and concepts. Instead, you will focus on the mechanics of the teaching.

  • Use slides sparingly

I am not the first to point this out but it bears repetition. Do not rely only on PowerPoint slides. Use them to show pictures and diagrams. But if you have to explain a concept, use the whiteboard. In the class that I was observing, the moment the slides came on, I could see students switch off. Eyes glazed, bodies slumped, mobile phones out of their pockets.

  • Stop playing with the lights

I had never, not for a moment, thought of light management as a factor in knowledge retention. Here’s what I observed. The instructor dimmed all the lights and put up the slides. The only ambient light was from the screen. After 10 minutes of lecture and several slides later, the instructor turned on all the lights. While pupils were narrowing to adjust to the bright lights, the instructor was reeling off instructions for the next assignment. I realized that none of us heard the instructions since we were physically reacting to the light.

When I had to display slides in my classroom, instead of turning off all the lights, I turned off just the screen lights. Although the assault on the optic nerves was not so palpable, there was still some blinking of the eyes. Therefore, try to reduce the number of times you have to turn the lights off and on. If you have to absolutely have a dark classroom, wait for students to adjust to the light levels before you start talking. Don’t assault their senses.

  • Multi-tasking is not for everyone

The instructor I was observing gave students a writing task. She gave them 10 minutes to complete the task, which required students to reference their textbooks. When they were three minutes into the task, the instructor started talking about the need to use references. Students who had just begun to find the relevant page in their texts, lost their place AND ended up not hearing the instructions in full. They lost a couple of minutes in the process. This was repeated again after another three minutes. The net result was that students got only six minutes out of the allotted ten to complete their task. Multiple interruptions meant that they could not fully concentrate on their task and they missed any helpful instructions that were given.

If you are one of those people who believe in the power of multitasking, in the second part of this article, I would like to put forth a few points for you to consider.

1. Your brain is not a fan

Do not take pride in being able to juggle multiple things at once. When you do that your mind is never really focused on any one task. This inability to concentrate can not only impact your professional life but also have implications on personal experiences and relationships. When we fail to live in the present, we are essentially only half-living.

2. More tasks = more mistakes

This is a logical consequence of the lack of focus when multitasking. When doing several things at once, your mind is divided between them, so it’s only natural that your mistakes will multiply. Multitaskers are not very good at filtering out irrelevant information. This means that there is sure to be some mental cross-firing and overlap between tasks. Can you really afford to make these mistakes? Probably not. That’s why each task should receive your full attention.

3.Wait, what’s multitasking again?

That’s right, it affects your memory. Needless to say, the impact is always negative and becomes increasingly apparent as you get older. Just because you can handle multiple tasks now doesn’t mean that in 5 or 10 years you’ll be able to go about your life in the same way. It’s always better to cultivate healthy habits early on.

4.Multitasking causes anxiety

A major downside of multitasking is the feeling of anxiety that plagues people who consistently divide their attention. A test measured the heart rates of employees with and without access to office email. Those who could access their emails remained wired up – they exhibited higher heart rates than those who didn’t have access. On the other hand, the second group was observed to perform their jobs relatively stress-free.

5.Creativity is inhibited

Devoting your attention to too many tasks at once, you will never have working memory left to come up with ideas and concepts that are truly creative. When we are anxious, our bodies start accessing the more primitive parts of our brain that are designed to keep us safe from danger. When that happens, we stop accessing other areas like the frontal lobe that have adapted for critical thinking and creativity.

6.Multitasking is a waste of time

When you distractedly attempt to complete small tasks while also trying to complete a larger one, you’ll soon see how it actually eats up more of your time rather than saves it. The mind has to reset to each task following the shift. We are also unable to maintain flow states (comprehending continuously). You have probably felt this before, like when you read a captivating novel and time stands still. You look up from the pages hours later, surprised by how much you’ve read.

Considering all these reasons, it’s easy to see why the power of multitasking is a myth.

Multitasking: What to do, what not to

If you’re going to have to multitask, however, you might as well do it the best you can. Here are some “dos and don’ts” to get the most out of your multitasking. 

The first thing you want to do with your task management tool is to gather all your tasks in a task list. You can set due dates, so you know when they absolutely must be completed. You can create personal task lists, but maybe you can share task lists too, which would be great for work or collaborative activities. Tasks can be easily updated as you progress or finish them. Ideally, you can also update the task status from wherever you are on any mobile device. With a task management tool, everything is stored in one place, which then frees up your brain to multitask as it sees fit.

  • Set reminders

When balancing numerous tasks, it’s essential to keep reminders. You could use a task management tool, but even your phone likely has a setting to help you set reminders. Again, it’s all about freeing your mind to focus more on the tasks. Note the deadline and then automate a notification or a series of notifications to remind you when that deadline is coming up. Chances are, as you get involved in one task, you’ll lose track of time and other work might suffer.

  • Break down tasks

The worst thing you can do is look at your work as a giant mass overshadowing everything. You’re going to get intimidated at best, and at worst, you’ll be paralyzed. That’s why it’s important to break down large tasks into smaller, digestible chunks. You can work on several tasks at once, and if they’re small enough, then they’re going to remain manageable. Try to look at your work as pieces of a larger whole. Then put them into the crucible of your mind and break them down to their essential parts. Those parts are your tasks. Some of those tasks might be dependent or related, so you can work on those that are linked together in a sequence, one at a time, to eventually accomplish the larger task.

  • Use downtime wisely

You’ve just finished a task. Now it’s Miller time! Celebrations are great, but they should only come when you’re actually done with the larger work, not after every step you take in working towards completion. Downtime is a period to refresh your batteries, sure, but it also can help you be a better multitasker. One problem with multitasking is how it messes with your memory. Therefore, during downtime, you want to review your work and make sure you’ve not forgotten some crucial element or detail. Maybe you can do this during your commute, if you have one, or while eating lunch or taking a coffee break.

  • Keep tasks in sight

Chances are that it’s busy where you work, so to successfully multitask, you must develop a method to reign in the chaos and add order to your work environment. One sure way to keep you on track as you work on multiple tasks at once is to keep your task list clearly visible. Keeping your task list visible is a good way to stay on top of your work because it shows you what must get done and what can be delayed. You can do this by prioritizing your task list. Use colour-coding or underlining to highlight the most critical jobs if you’re using the old fashioned paper list. Or, if you’re using software, let the tools help you stay on top of the most important tasks, and the ones that are due soon.

  • Choose what to multitask and what not to

Okay, we’ve noted that multitasking isn’t the ideal way to get work done. But when are you ever in an ideal setting? If you wait for one to materialize, your work will never get done. The worst thing you can do is to believe that all tasks are created equally. They’re not. Therefore, it’s up to you to look over and evaluate tasks prior to starting them. Some tasks are going to require your full attention. If you try to multitask while doing these involved tasks, then everything that’s wrong with multitasking will prove true. So, give those involved tasks your undivided attention. The tasks that are routine, familiar or easy are the tasks that you should multitask. By planning and divvying up tasks, and by knowing which can be multitasked and which cannot, you’ll be a task-achieving machine.

As instructors we are very familiar with what we wish to transfer to learners. We rehearse these facts over and over. Students need time to absorb material. We are not doing them any favours by unwittingly interfering with the absorption process. Go ahead and take the time to sit in a class. You will learn a lot about yourself.

The author is an educator and has deep interest in the integration of lifeskills with literature for a purposeful and peaceful life. She can be reached at latha.vydianathan@yahoo.com

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