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11 Ways Your Study Environment Affects Productivity (And How You Can Improve It)

7/26/2012 9:58 am

Xen Study Space

Having the right place to study is as important as having good study skills. Your study environment can be a big factor in how successfully you’ll learn and retain information and be able to apply it in your assessments and on the job. At an online university , you often have much more control over your study environment than a traditional student stuck in a classroom or campus library might have.

Here are 11 ways your surroundings impact your studying and how you can make your study settings more conducive to learning.

1. Music

A lot of us listen to music while we read, write, and research. But does music help or hurt studying? The answer depends on the individual. But research has shown that studying with headphones on tends to decrease memory and information retention, while background music can be a study aid.

The solution: Background music, especially familiar music you’ve heard often before, is much easier to "tune out" than other environmental noises like people talking or construction work outside. Listening to familiar background music that isn’t too loud or distracting can help drown out other, more distracting environmental noise and can create associations that actually help you remember what you’re studying better. But take out those ear buds.

2. Background noise—too much, or too little

Many students, especially those who are easily distracted or who have trouble keeping their attention focused, will find that it doesn’t take much noise to pull them out of their reading and into their surroundings. And it’s not just about volume – the din of a coffee shop may provide so much noise that it helps screen out other distractions, but a leaky faucet with its intermittent drips may drive you insane and cause you to reread the same sentence four or five times.

The solution: First, get to know yourself. Do you do better in silence, or are you the kind of student who thrives amid the buzz of background noise? Try a few settings, and pay attention to how each study session goes. Give the library a go one day, and see how that hushed environment works out. The next day, try a coffee shop or the park. After each session, write down some notes about how the studying went and how well you were able to understand and retain what you were studying. Once you know how your brain handles noise, pick study locations that match your sound profile.

3. Smells

How many times have you popped dinner in the oven and, during the down time while it cooked, tried to sneak in a chapter or two of reading? Problem is, tonight you’re making a delicious curry—and those smells keep pulling focus away from your ebook and to your stomach. A distraction doesn’t have to be unpleasant to be a problem.

The solution: Pick up and move. If the guy next to you at the library is wearing your favorite cologne, or you just can’t stop thinking about the pastries they just put on the counter at the coffee shop, head to a new spot and resume your studying there. You can’t always control environmental factors; sometimes, you simply have to give in and change environments.

4. Lighting

It’s almost impossible to stay focused on your studies while straining your eyes to read in dim lighting, or squinting and getting a headache under harsh artificial lights. Adequate and appropriate lighting is a must for successful studying.

The solution: Pay special attention to lighting when you sit down to study. Is the light adequate now, and is it likely to stay that way? Is it just an hour until sundown? Maybe this isn’t the best time to study on the back porch, even though the lighting is just fine now. Light coverage of your study materials should be even and consistent—no shadows, no glare. Shielded full-spectrum fluorescent lights are said to help you be calmer, steadier, and less easily distracted. Or if it’s midday and bright and clear outside, the natural light you get from studying outdoors or next to a large window can be incomparable. Just be sure that the activity—passersby, traffic, your neighbor’s rambunctious pet—isn’t going to distract you.

5. Temperature and humidity

For a short time, you may be able to stay focused in hot or humid places, but after a while, these circumstances can become unbearable. Similarly, if you’re too cold, that quickly becomes all you can think about, and studying suffers.

The solution: When you can control your environment—you have access to a thermostat, for example—set the temperature to a comfortable, constant level. But if you have to study at a library or public place where you can’t control the temperature, try to have a sweater or glass of ice water handy.

6. Something more fun or interesting

Facebook. Email. Your smart phone. Even a yoyo, a ball, or a simple stapler sitting on your desk in your bedroom. Especially when you’re studying something you find boring or difficult, it doesn’t take much to have you fidgeting, Facebooking, or focusing your attention on the first thing that strikes your fancy and seems even slightly more interesting than that next chapter.

The solution: Once again, knowing yourself is critical. Are you a compulsive email checker? Do you find yourself browsing Instagram or checking tweets without even thinking about it, even though you just checked them three minutes ago? Remove the distractions. Turn off your phone and tuck it away in your bag or dresser drawer. Log out of Facebook. Clear off your desk so only the necessary study supplies are within reach. And perhaps most importantly, schedule time for breaks. If you give yourself 10 minutes of Facebook time for each major task you finish, chapter you read, or other reasonable milestone, you won’t be as tempted to stop mid-sentence and go check out your news feed.

7. Comfort—too much, or too little

Sitting on your bed in your pajamas while logging into your course of study may be a unique perk of earning your degree online , but if you’re not careful, next thing you know you may be waking up from an unplanned nap, your laptop battery light blinking and whatever you were reading before dozing off a complete blur. Of course, the converse is true, too—if the chair you’re sitting in is hard and straight-backed and just plain uncomfortable, you’ll be squirming a lot more than you’ll be learning.

The solution: Be aware of how you’re feeling. If you’re a little sleepy, avoid that overstuffed arm chair and opt for the desk in your den instead. Find a spot that’s comfortable, but not too comfortable, and make it your go-to study location.

8. Associations with other activities

It’s always been your favorite restaurant—the one with the quiet little corner booth where you could sit by yourself for hours, reading over dinner and totally immersing yourself in your studies. But then, you brought your date here last weekend, and it turned out to be a really promising first date. Now, as your eyes skim over the words, your brain is remembering the conversations you had and the feelings you felt last time you sat in this booth. Meanwhile, the kitchen table makes you crave dinner, and studying in the office after your shift ends just reminds you of all the work you didn’t finish during work hours. For many of us, locations carry associations, and if our brain relates a certain place to a specific activity or incident, trying to turn it into a study spot just isn’t going to work.

The solution: If your mind tends to wander when you’re studying in a place that has non-schoolwork associations, try to come up with a space that’s solely devoted to study. If your house has a den or office, set up a study corner and use it only for school tasks. Maybe the library has a quiet study room that you can use for the purpose (and no other purpose).

9. The clock

When studying, the clock can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Keeping an eye on the time can give you a sense of urgency and remind you that you’ve got one hour left of study time so you have to make the most of it. Or it can be that thing you keep glancing at, wondering, "Has it really only been 15 minutes?" or thinking, "My favorite TV show starts in just six hours!"

The solution: Use the clock to your advantage. Set time-related goals: Before you start an assignment or task, write down what time you plan to finish. Allow it to put a little pressure—just a little—on you, keeping you on task because you really, really want to achieve that goal. With time, you can even slightly increase your goals, aiming to get through a chapter in 50 minutes today instead of your previous goal of an hour. Don’t overdo it, but use the clock to keep you moving forward.

10. Other people

Study groups can be super-helpful—or super-frustrating. The sound of your kids playing in the next room can allow you to study while making sure that they’re playing safely and being nice to each other—or, it can drive you crazy to hear their giggling chatter and wish you were there to play with them (or break up the occasional bickering). Conversations among your fellow patrons in the coffee shop can be just the white noise you need to get focused, or the loudmouth at the table next to you can end up forcing you to eavesdrop on his story about an annoying coworker—even though you’re not remotely interested.

The solution: If you like to study in groups, come prepared. Show up with a clear agenda of what you want to accomplish, questions you want to discuss, help you might need. Avoid wasting time with chit-chat or without a clear direction for your study group. Meanwhile, if you study around family, coworkers, or strangers, let them know you’re studying and can’t be disturbed. Use your "Do not disturb" door hanger from your student success kit, or create your own. Teach your older kids about the importance of quiet time for Mom or Dad to study, and enlist their help to keep the smaller kids occupied and cared for. Make baby’s naptime your study time. If studying in public, opt either for a quiet table in the corner or a spot right in the middle of it all, where there’s so much noise and buzz that you won’t get distracted by one conversation. And if all else fails, pick up and move away from distracting people when necessary.

11. Feng shui

Even the physical arrangement of furniture and the layout of a room can affect your ability to study. In a cramped, crowded room, you may feel restricted and stuck—maybe even a little claustrophobic—and definitely not relaxed and ready to learn. If it’s hard for you to get to the resources you need—your calculator is on a cluttered desk on the other side of a couch that’s too big for the room, or the kitchen sink is blocked by an ironing board left out, preventing you from easily refilling your glass of water—you can get frustrated or opt to go without resources that would greatly improve your effectiveness.

The solution: Take some time to create a clean, organized, neat work space for studying, and then endeavor to keep it that way. Let your family know that your desk is yours, and their clutter doesn’t belong there. If space is limited and you study in a room where you also do other chores, completely finish and clean up from one chore before leaving it behind, to avoid the crowding and chaos of laundry baskets/ironing board/dirty dishes. Remember that a cluttered learning environment clutters the mind.

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