by Robina Riccitiello
As another school year is underway, students across San Francisco are well into this year’s round of homework. Pencils sharpened (does anyone write on paper anymore?), laptops and iPads charged, snacks at hand … they are ready to work. The question is where? Some students study at pristine desks in their rooms, with the door closed to familial distractions. Others sprawl on the living room couch, with the TV blaring, Facebook beckoning and younger siblings pestering. Is the sequestered student guaranteed to do better than the more distracted student? Not necessarily.
Education experts – and parents – have long suggested that students work every day in the same place, ideally in a quiet place with all their books and school supplies on their desks. But an oft-quoted 1978 study found that college students who studied a set of 40 words in two different rooms performed better on a recall test than students who practiced the words twice in the same room. In the study by researchers at University of Wisconsin, Madison, and UCLA, some of the students studied the words once in a cluttered, windowless room and once in a modern room with a view, while the others stuck to a single room. Working in different locations with difference sensory inputs may make the material “stick” better.
Several San Francisco parents reported that their teens already vary their study spots, but more often because of convenience and the desire for company than because they think it helps them learn better.
“My high schooler likes to study out in the open – in the kitchen, on the dining room table, in the living room, and yes, sometimes in front of the TV,” said the mother of a student at Jewish Community High School. “Since she does a good deal of her work on the computer, the pull of Facebook and YouTube is strong. But I also overhear video calls with her classmates when they’re completing assignments or going through study packets to prepare for exams.”
The mother of two graduates from Drew School recalled equipping her daughters’ rooms with desks, only to discover that they preferred studying on their beds … or on the floor of the parents’ bedroom.
Students who work in the kitchen or other public areas of the house risk parental nagging and other distractions, but sometimes it’s worth having the company, parents said.
“I have a junior girl who likes to alternate her homework station between her bedroom and the dining room. She gets lonely in her room and comes to the dining or kitchen area for company,” a mother of two students at Lick-Wilmerding High School noted. “However, she knows I will ask her to set aside her iPhone and generally nag her about Facebook and Snapchatting, so she sometimes sticks to her room. I love to have her in the kitchen and I realize … I can’t nag her so much and ask her to focus.”
The same parent has a son who always works in his room. “He’s quite focused and gets his work done, but boy, can he multitask,” she said. “He simultaneously works and Facebooks hard for hours at a stretch, which is probably why he prefers the quiet and privacy of his room.”
Another mother of two says her son, now away at college , used to work in the dining room. “Since he was generally nearby , I could kiss his head if I walked by,” she said. Her high school daughter usually works in her room at her desk or on her bed, which makes giving a passing kiss on the head a bit “awkward and intrusive,” she said. “I could ask her about doing some work more centrally and she might be touched by the request because of the reason – wanting to see her more – but I suspect there is a lot of intermittent communication – texting, Facebook, iChatting – that goes on and she does not want me to see any of that.”
Studies have shown that multitasking reduces the quality of learning. But few students can resist the draw of Facebook, Instagram and the countless other apps aimed at teens and young adults.
“The top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time when they’re using media,” Dr. Clifford Nass, a Stanford psychology professor, told NPR earlier this year. “So when they’re writing a paper, they’re also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, et cetera.” Nass says research shows that people who multi-task regularly are “basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
A UCLA study showed that people who tried to learn a new task while distracted by a series of beeps did not learn as efficiently. Learning that takes place without distraction actively uses the hippocampus, which plays an important role in processing, storing and recalling information. Using MRIs of the study participants’ brains, the researchers discovered that the people who were distracted were using another part of the brain – the striatum – and not the hippocampus, in learning.
“Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn” the co-author of the 2006 UCLA study, Russell Poldrack, said in a statement. Poldrack is now director of the Imaging Research Center at University of Texas at Austin. “Even if you learn by multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.”
In fairness to multi-tasking teenagers worldwide, researchers have not yet focused on how the brain is stimulated while the students are doing something pleasurable, like listening to music, while learning. But a Kaiser Family Foundation study observed 8 to 18 year olds and found that during a 15 minute study session, most of them couldn’t resist multi-tasking. The study found that students spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day using entertainment media, but because they are multi-tasking, they actually see, on average, more than 10 hours’ worth of media content daily. Many teens find they have to turn off their social media and mobile phone to get any work done.
“The biggest obstacle for my girls was the clutter of social media,” said the mother of two Drew graduates. “They had to take themselves off-line to focus completely.”
Some students change their study habits as high school progresses, moving from the couch or bed to their desks as the work becomes more demanding.
“My junior just started studying in his room with the door closed this year. It was his preference. We never talked about it. It just occurred naturally,” one mother reported. “I miss him being so removed, but I am trying to respect his movements and need for separation. He tends to go immediately upstairs after school or rehearsal and I sense he just needs down time and time alone after so much contact with others.”
Psychologists say that studying throughout the week, instead of cramming right before a test, works better for long-term learning. Routine tests or quizzes also help students learn the material better than just reviewing lecture notes and readings. A study of Washington University students found that those students who were tested during the course of the study retained the information better than those who studied the material for an equal length of time, but weren’t tested.
“We believe that the neglect of testing in all levels of education is misguided,” wrote the study’s authors, Henry L. Roediger III and Jeffrey D. Karpicke. “…Testing has a powerful positive effect on future retention.”
Students sometimes find creative ways to learn tough material.
“My daughter’s best tool for memorization was making up raps,” a high school mom recalled. “She had us in hysterics sometimes, especially her rap on the digestive system, which she recited marching around the house in her robe.”
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Riccitiello, a San Francisco freelance journalist, is the mother of two daughters and the Chair of the Parents’ Coalition of Bay Area High Schools.