March 3, 2013
When do you listen to podcasts such as Skeptoid? I listed to my favorite science and skeptical podcasts in my car, when commuting. I've heard that others do it while jogging or cycling, or just before falling asleep (I'm assuming they are not listening to Skeptoid then).
Anyway, to me, listening to podcasts gives me the impression that I'm making the best of traffic jams. It makes me feel better about the time spent in my car, and makes me think I really learn something new. This is only anecdotal evidence however, and I've often wondered if this really is true. New research shows that it is partially correct.
At the University of Louvain in Belgium, researcher Joke Coens has just finished her doctorate on learning while multitasking (link is in Dutch). She let people learn (an audio course in Spanish) while performing various tasks. When the task was simple and repetitive, like manual labor or jogging, learning was as good as when students were focusing on the audio learning only (the control group). This is good news, and a bit contrary to what we would expect from common sense.
However, when it was combined with a car simulator, there were some issues. Learning still was as good as the control group, but ... there were a lot of crashes. There goes my theory! Coens indicated that in practice, learning would suffer in favor of safe driving. In a follow-up test, it was shown that chunks of learning where indeed missed when subjects had to focus on another cognitive task.
In conclusion, although I still think that my daily commute is less of a waste when listening to podcasts, it's probably better to pay attention to the traffic. And as a suggestion to all podcast creators: please make sure your material is well structured, with from time to time a repeat or summary of your points. If commuters like myself then miss a part, we might be able to pick up again afterwards. Better that than car accidents ...
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