Advising & Learning Assistance Center
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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Advising & Learning Assistance Center

Effective study environments

There are as many different study environments as there are students. Some students cannot study when it is really quiet, because then any sound at all attracts their attention. Some students need the quiet because they cannot "tune out" noises, so what is conducive to one is not necessarily conducive to another. Some students have to create a "box" to try and screen out anything their eyes might see, because they are very distracted by movement. Others need a busy environment so that there are no isolated movements to attract their attention. Some people can have TV in the background, not directly in front of them, and use the noise for masking other noises, while others find the TV an attention magnet.

So what can be said about certain study environments?

Background music

Studying with headphones on tends to decrease retention/memory, whereas music in the background can be an aid to study. The difference between the two deals with how close the input of sound is.

Headphones have direct access to the brain by covering the ears, and this direct access can interfere with learning, especially if the material is new and the new material is difficult! Being "lazy," the brain prefers the close input of the music over the more distant, more difficult input from the eyes that it must translate and "work on" to understand.

Unlike music through headphones, background music has all environmental noises included in it, and to hear this music to the exclusion of other input requires intense concentration. For example, if you have ever seen somebody trying to listen to an instructional recording in the middle of a busy work environment, you may have noticed that they closed their eyes to decrease visual input to help them focus on the sound. People do not use this type of concentration for environmental sounds, and can focus on the closer print material to a greater degree. Some people use familiar music to mask outside noises. With the music being very familiar, the student in some ways does not "hear" it, it is an expected noise with an expected sequence. So a student studying in a room with a stereo going can be masking (hiding) sounds from the hall or somebody's TV, while working on material for classes. Some studies even suggest that certain types of music -- such as Bach, Beethoven, or flowing instrumentals -- may even increase intelligence and retention of material. However, hard driving rock, rap music, and heavy metal cannot make the same claim!

Study locations

Some students will say that they want to study in their rooms. That is okay for some students, but not for others.

For the room to "work" for a student, the student must know if they have the characteristics to study in their room. First of all, it is essential that the student be very organized and not let themselves be distracted by the more fun things they have around, such as computer games, e-mail, friends and roommates, parties, etc. The student should have all their materials close by, and be able to set a task and get it done. In addition, the student does not confuse the need for rest and the need to study; that is, he or she doesn't attempt to study on the bed only to discover several hours later that they fell asleep instead of studying! Finally, the student shouldn't feel compelled to complete other tasks, such as cleaning or organizing the room, before starting to study.

Many students, however, find that they must leave their room in order to study effectively, because their room equals a place to sleep and play, and not a place to learn. These students have to go through the process of organizing what they want to get done while they study, packing up their backpack and removing themselves from the "fun" environment, and deliberately going to a quieter study environment, such as the library, a classroom, or the McNeil Room in the Union. Whether the study location is the typical "quiet" of a library or the noise and confusion of the Union depends on how well the student can focus.

Quiet environments, such as the library or a classroom, can work for the student who is easily distracted and needs the minimum of sound and visual stimulation. And while some students may complain that the library is "boring," some students need just that...a "boring" place to study. Keep in mind, however, that the lack of sound in such an environment magnifies any sound that does occur, and this in turn increases the ability of a sound to distract students from their studies.

Some students need a noisier environment so that they can work on "screening out" distractions. In such a situation, there are so many noises that no one noise can draw attention, and students visually isolate themselves by concentrating on their book; they do not hear the conversations and movement of others around them. In some cases, students may be so absorbed in their studies that a friend would have to shake their arm to get their attention! Students who prefer the challenge of working in such enviroments should remember to discipline themselves such that they will give themselves study breaks, and observe the timeline of taking a ten- to 15-minute break for every 50 to 75 minutes of studying.

Advantages of working in your room

Disadvantages of working in your room

Your room is probably the most distracting environment in which you can choose to study: your hallmates may drop in to visit, or a friend down the hall cranks a new CD and asks you to come check it out. Somebody cooks or orders something that smells really good and you have to go find it and sample it. Some more kids down the hall throw a party. In short, the possibilities for tempting distractions are practically endless!

Advantages of leaving your room

Disadvantages to leaving your room

Working with study groups

Focused, organized study groups can provide the best of all study environments. The group can arrange to meet in a quiet location, set an agenda of material to be covered, and can be a resource for help if a member of the group gets stuck doing a problem. What's more, if one member of the group forgets something, another member may have the missing material.

Students who prepare for a study group, actively discuss the problems and how to solve them, and who are not satisfied with "just getting an answer" will find study groups to be a path to higher grades than studying alone will bring. However, keep in mind that students who do not make a fair contribution to a study group, and simply use it as a means to just "get the answers," will find that a study group will be the fastest route to an "F."

"Study" situations to avoid

It is commonly agreed that the following situations do not provide good study environments:

In closing, we hope you'll take some time to establish which environments are most conducive to your best study habits. We think you'll be pleased with the results the next time you receive your grades!