The Split Attention Effect

The Split-Attention Effect in Learning

As a driver, I am sure that you are very careful and attentive and that you follow all the rules of the road. I am sure that you care about the other people on the road who, like you, are just trying to get somewhere to another loved one. Unlike, Carlee Rose Bollig, a seventeen-year-old from Minnesota, who on July 21, 2015, ran a red light in her pick-up truck and struck another vehicle with Charles Mauer and Cassy, his ten-year-old daughter, in the vehicle, killing them both. Carlee Rose Bollig was eventually charged with criminal vehicular homicide (Hudson). Why was Bollig unable to stop in time? Because she was posting comments to Facebook. Her attention was focused on Facebook and not on the road. This is an example of the split-attention effect, which simply means that you can’t do two things mentally at the same time without your attention suffering. And apparently Facebook is more important than human lives. However, there are ways to mitigate the split-attention effect when we’re learning or driving and doing so could save your life.

What is the split-attention effect? According to the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, the split-attention occurs as follows:

Instructional split attention occurs when learners are required to split their attention between and mentally integrate several sources of physically or temporally disparate information, where each source of information is essential for understanding the material. Cognitive load is increased by the need to mentally integrate the multiple sources of information. This increase in extraneous cognitive load is likely to have a negative impact on learning compared with conditions where the information has been restructured to eliminate the need to split attention. (Ayres and Sweller)

Quite simply, it refers to what happens when, as a student, you need to combine information from two different sources that are separated by time or space. For example, math books often combine a text-based explanation with an equation that are separated spatially, which means that the explanation is on one part of the page while the equation or diagram is on another part of the page. Usually, the text appears first with a parenthetical reference to the equation. I noticed the split-attention effect while I was taking a statistics course from UW Madison via correspondence. I found that as I was using the book, I was jumping back and forth between the explanation and the equation so much so that I really wasn’t understanding what was going on. It wasn’t until I recorded the text and played it back while studying the equation that I really started to understand. My grade went from a D to an A.

In addition, the split-attention effect can also be an issue when driving a car. This is why texting and driving are so dangerous. The driver is splitting their attention between driving their car and texting on the phone. Both are separated spatially. However, this isn’t just confined to texting while driving this would also apply to doing anything other than driving. Prior to cell phones, drivers could be found being distracted by their car stereo, friends, putting on makeup, or even, as I have personally seen, someone reading a book. All require you to split your attention and in so doing make for unsafe driving.

Another over-looked example of the split-attention effect is taking notes. Like many students, you find yourself sitting in class listening to a teacher drone on while you furiously take notes; however, you must split your attention between listening and writing. Every time you write something down, you aren’t listening and so can miss something important. It is better to actively listen to the lecture rather than listen and write. If you must write, it’s better to wait for a pause.

Some of the best examples of the split-attention effect are subtitles and captions. If you’re reading, you can’t really be watching the video, and if you’re watching the video, you can’t be reading. Yet, this is our solution for the deaf. It’s a pretty bad solution if you ask me. It would be better to place the text as close to the speaker or the information as possible. If you’re as old as me, you might remember VH1’s pop-up videos.

In these videos, information was usually placed on the screen in positions that were directly tied to the information being given. This reduces the split-attention effect.

As you can see, the split-attention effect is a common phenomenon that undermines whatever process you are involved in whether it is taking notes in class, driving a car, or studying from a math book. To compensate, reduce the time or spatial distance between the separate sources of information by placement or by changing the medium, such as when I changed the visual text of a math book into audio, or simply don’t get involved in splitting your attention. It could save your life.


Ayres, Paul, and John Sweller. “The Split-Attention Principle in Multimedia Learning.” The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Ed. Mayer Richard. New York: Cambridge UP, 2014. 206–07. Print.

Hudson, Bill. (2015). Charges: Girl, 17, Was On Facebook Seconds Before Double Fatal Crash. Retrieved from