It is often said that contemporary students frequently study while ‘multitasking’. However, this rather diffuse term encompasses situations that vary as to the whether the learner controls the pace at which educational materials are provided. On the basis of prior cognitive research, we hypothesize that this may well be a critical determinant of interference. Three studies required students to read or listen to several short historical narratives and also to engage in five to eight very short conversations (akin to an instant messaging conversation). In Experiment 1, subjects read the narratives; here, multitasking marginally increased total time spent reading the narratives, especially when it occurred at random times. However, final memory for the narratives was not significantly affected. Similar results were obtained when the narratives were presented in audio format and the learner could pause them while conversing (Experiment 2). By contrast, when audio narratives did not pause, interruptions reduced comprehension performance (Experiment 3). Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.