The Decline of the American Homework

06/10/2013 01:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2013

I used to date a Yale student. In other words, I used to study in the same room as a Yale student. I was always glancing over at her laptop, hoping to surprise her mid-Gawker article, or ankle-deep in rain boots on Etsy. 'Ha,' I yearned to cry. 'I didn't travel 200 miles just to watch you shoe shop!' But I never did catch her. She was the best homework-doer I have ever met.

The decline of American homework is a well-established fact. Fifty years ago, a now-famous study reports, college students squared away 25 hours of studying a week. By 1981 that number had fallen to 16, and in 2004 12 hours was the norm. Other studies point to the same decline. A survey of student time use at Berkeley, one of the nation's top public universities, indicated a mere 13 hours of studying.

Maybe, goes the rejoinder, American students don't need to study as much anymore. Maybe computers have made them more efficient. There must be something to this -- after all, of those 25 hours that students used to spend working, what portion was wasted leafing through library catalogs? And mailing book-loan requests? And re-spooling typewriter ribbons? The computer makes everything easier to do.

Then again (and I paraphrase Andy Rooney), most of the things computers make easier to do, don't need to be done. Everybody knows this, of course, even scientists. The Google search terms 'Internet procrastination study' reveals no end of juicy research: 47 percent of online time is wasted, the average smartphone user checks Facebook 17 times a day, etc.

Only recently, however, has scholarly research on time-wasting in students begun to arrive. There is a dawning awareness among scholars of what the rest of us already know -- it's not only how long you spend doing homework that counts, its the quality of the time you put into it as well.

The most interesting of these studies was conducted by Rey Junco and Shelia Cotten. They asked 1600 students how often they 'multitasked' while doing homework. Two-thirds of respondents used Facebook with at least moderate frequency while studying. Another 41 percent admitted to searching for irrelevant information. On average, students estimated they spent a full hour 'multi-tasking' on Facebook while they were studying, and another forty minutes browsing the web.

Junco goes onto assert that students who use Facebook while studying have lower GPAs then non-Facebook users. This should come as no surprise to us. Multitasking is not real; the human mind, sophisticated though it may be, is capable of attending to no more than one task at a time. It seems almost criminal that the word is still in common usage. Like 'pacification' or 'collateral damage,' 'multitasking' is essentially misleading. A student studying in the library should know that he or she has only one task to accomplish: studying. Everything else is just play.

It's been ages since I broke up with the Yale girl -- okay, she broke up with me -- but this spring I went back to her alma mater, collecting material for a book about undergrad life. As part of my researches, I wandered around the libraries, looking over laptop-users' shoulders to see what they were doing. Twenty-six percent, or 41 of 156 people, were fooling about: using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, ESPN, etcetera (I didn't count emailing and Wikipedia as either work or play). Even Yalies are not immune to temptation -- my annoyingly perfect ex-girlfriend excepted. However, when I visited other schools the 'library procrastination ratio' was often much higher. At its tippy-most point at Lousiana State University, 59 of 143 observed students were using their computers to goof around. That's 41 percent percent.

The ambitious student may be well advised to take a lesson from the Yale go-getters and try to cut down on the time they waste online. Even better would be to literally take a page out of your parent's notebook. It's hard to procrastinate on HuffPost when all you bring to the library is paper and pencil.