The nice, clean, quiet study environment: myth or just good motherly advice?
In today’s video I answer a question about whether there’s actually such a thing as a “best” study location, or whether you’re just as well off on the couch – and I go through 4 different ways to think about it.
This question comes from Hanane who asks…
This is an interesting discussion, and there are actually multiple takes on this, but let’s start out with some real talk…
If you ask somebody, “Where should I study?” they’re typically going to say, “Go to the library, find a nice quiet place where you’ll have no distractions.”
Original Photo via Kimberly Vardeman
In reality, your study location doesn’t really matter that much. If you’re studying the right things in the right way, where you study is relatively unimportant.
My short answer for you here, Hanane, is if you’re able to stay focused for relatively large chunks of time (like 30 minutes at a time without getting distracted) then the couch should be perfectly fine for you.
That being said, here are a couple of things that I would consider…
First, focus on the “right” way to study
First off, let’s not gloss over the idea of the right way to study. Now I talk about this a lot on WTF Professor but if you’re in a math, science, or engineering course, there are two things that you should be doing regardless of where you’re studying. The first is Reverse Learning – so taking solved examples of problems or concepts that you’ve come across in class and breaking those down step by step.
The second thing is Active Recall – so starting from a blank sheet of paper and solving problems or answering questions from scratch to really test your memory. If you make sure that you’re doing these two things, the effects will far outweigh any effect that you’ll have from studying in different locations.
Second, how prone are you to distractions?
With that covered, another way to think about this question is how prone you are to distractions in a particular study environment. Even if you are studying on the couch and you feel like you can do it without getting distracted from your work, if there are distractions around that you’re avoiding – like watching TV, going to get something to eat, or talking to your roommates – this uses up valuable mental resources each time you resist one of these things.
What this means practically is that you’re draining yourself of mental energy that you could be reapplying back into your studying by just avoiding the distractions that are around you. That means that studying in a distraction-environment can benefit you in that you’re preserving that mental energy so that you can study for longer.
Third, where are you most likely to get started?
Now we can go the other way with it and talk about which study location will make you most likely to get started studying, or what location can you pick where you’ll have the least resistance to get going. With this approach we’re maximizing the likelihood that we’re going to start studying, which is more than half the battle most of the time.
This might mean picking a location where you’re most comfortable or it might mean picking a location that’s the most simple to get started. It might be that you have everything ready for you on your desk so you can literally roll out of bed and jump into studying. Or it could be going to the local coffee shop where you really enjoy the environment and it feels enriching, and it makes you want to come back and study more. If for you, that means the couch, then by all means, pick the couch.
Fourth, let the research decide: specific vs. diverse study context
Now the fourth way you can think about this is some interesting research that suggests two different strategies you could apply when it comes to study locations.
Study in your “testing context”
The first strategy you could apply is studying in the same environment that you’re going to be tested in later. Now the research shows things like if you’re studying while listening to jazz music, you’ll perform better later on if you’re also listening to jazz music. One way you could look at it is if you want to maximize the amount of material you’re going to be able to recall later on, then you want to study in an environment that’s as close to the lecture hall or classroom where you’re going to be taking your exam as possible.
Study in a wide range of different contexts
The second strategy that you could apply is studying in a wide and diverse range of different contexts. This is what’s called “context varying.” Benedict Carey talks about this in his book How We Learn (highly recommended). The idea behind this is that by studying in a lot of different environments, you’re going to make your knowledge as robust as possible.
For example, if you study in the quiet of your dorm room and then also the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop, and then maybe you review that same information while you’re at the gym walking on the treadmill, there’s going to be a much higher likelihood that you’re going to be able to recall that information later on on an exam or when you’re doing homework, regardless of what environment you’re being tested in. Think of it like this: you’re creating a lot of routes to the same information stored in your memory and you’ll be able to more robustly recall that later when you’re asked to.
Alright so that’s my take on study locations. If you follow these general strategies, then you’ll be able to study your ass off on the couch and still ace your test at the same time.
You can also view the video above on Youtube.