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This post was orignally published in July, 2012. It has been updated and republished.
Many students work hard to acquire good study skills, but not many realize that having the right place to study is just as important. 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, which can be a good or bad thing. Students attending college online may need to pay even more attention to their study environment so they ensure they are learning everything they need.
Here are 10 ways your surroundings impact your studying and how you can make your study settings more conducive to learning.
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. However, 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. It’s easy to find or create a playlist of “study jams” that you can consistently listen to as background music to help you focus.
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. For students at online universities, most study time happens at home or out in public, not necessarily in quiet college libraries. This can be a problem when it comes to staying focused on your studying.
The solution: First, get to know yourself. Can you get in the zone better in silence, or are you a student who thrives amid background noise? Try a few settings, and pay attention to how each study session goes. One day, head to a public or local university library 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 matches your sound profile.
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.
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. This may seem silly to you, but think about it. How annoying is a lightbulb that keeps going on and off, and how frustrating is it when you can’t read because someone is blocking your light? These small elements will add up and either help you have a great study session, or a bad one.
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. 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.
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. For students attending online college, walking around campus to find a spot or needing to study outside in between classes isn’t an issue. Rather, it’s making the time to have a good study session in a good location.
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.
Facebook. Email. Your smart phone. The TV. It doesn’t take much to pull your focus from studying, especially when you’re studying something you find boring or difficult. It’s difficult enough to get yourself to sit down and plan to study, it’s even harder to keep studying when you’d rather be doing something else.
The solution: Once again, knowing yourself is crucial. 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.
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. Of course, the converse is true, too—if the chair you’re sitting in is hard, 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 armchair 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. Take a walk every few minutes to refocus your energy.
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 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.
Study groups can be helpful—or frustrating. Setting up a study session with classmates can end up being productive, or sometimes it can be little more than a chat session. You may also find yourself at home, when a roommate or child wants some of your attention. These other people can wreak havoc on your carefully planned out study time.
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. Find a “Do Not Disturb” hanger to help relay the message. 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.
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—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 or roommates 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. Remember that a cluttered learning environment clutters the mind.
Saying to yourself “I want to improve my study habits” is the first step of purposeful, intentional study time. When you recognize that something about your current study plan doesn’t work, you are willing to take the step into improving your study habits and becoming more productive.
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