The amount of content that a student can remember will directly impact on what they write in their exams and by extension, the marks they get. This makes the act or process of memorising a set of notes extremely important for students.
The process of memorising a set of notes has a number of steps, the first of which is simply paying attention to what we are attempting to memorise. This first step is the easiest of the memory steps, but interestingly the one that most students have the greatest difficulty with, as most students find themselves studying whilst surrounded by a range of distractions. Research shows that these distractions serve to limit the amount of information that students can remember and recall in an exam and therefore how will they do in the exam room. As such, students should think of TV, radio, music, younger siblings, phones, text-messages, Youtube and the latest photos or updates on Facebook not just as distractions, but as the causes of lost marks.
The most obvious solution to the problem of distractions is locating students in environments without distractions such as a study or a bedroom. But in many cases parents don’t promote or encourage this for two mistaken reasons:
The belief that their children, as members of Gen Y or Gen i, have been born with an innate ability to multi-task. This belief has become increasingly common as the media increasingly discusses the tech savyness of children. However, one of the problems with this is that your children’s brains haven’t taken an evolutionary long-jump in the last 10 years. Just because students have unprecedented access to data and information, doesn’t mean that they can effectively process or use that information. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Research by Oberauer, Lange and Engle (2004), shows that students who multi-task have lower levels of memory retention and recall than students focusing on one separate task, reinforcing the need for students to remove distractions and resist attempting to multi-task.
Secondly, the mistaken belief that because you can multi-task as a parent, that your child should have the same ability. Unfortunately, research by Oleson, Macoveanu, Tegner and Kingberg (2006), shows that the ability to block out distractions increases with age which means that whilst you may be able to block out background noise, your children are much less likely to be able to. As such, every time the volume on the TV spikes for an ad break, the kettle boils or the phone rings, their attention is disrupted and their ability to memorise what they are working on drops.
So the challenge for you then we will be helping your child remove distractions. These are our tips for creating a study environment free from distractions:
Separate study from life
Help your child find a space in which study will be removed from the hustle and bustle of life at home. This location might be your child’s bedroom, a separate study if you have one or simply a room as far away from the TV as possible.
Work at a desk
Our ability to pay attention is based not only on the disruptions around us, but also on our physical state. Often the environment in which we work has a direct impact on our physical state, the obvious example being students doing homework on their bed or lying down on a couch. Unfortunately, if students are lying down, their bodies will begin to go into sleep mode and their attention levels lower (take reading a book in bed and drifting off mid-page as the best example!). The same thing happens when students are studying in a prone position. As such, maximise attention by ensuring that your child’s study location has a desk or table to work at. Study is rarely fun, to the point that any object within easy reach will automatically become worthy of attention and serve as a distraction. Remove these distractions by getting rid of all objects on or near the desk.
Be your child’s ally and help them filter out distractions. Keep younger siblings away. Monitor TV volume. If your child is working in a shared room near the TV it is worth investing in some noise blocking headphones that they can use to block some of the ambient noise out.
Help your children self-select
Because of the fact that almost everything is more fun that study, the temptation to keep disruptions within easy reach can be too much for most students. Students will study at a desk, but then have Facebook open on the computer in front of them. Some students will attempt to delude themselves by having an alternate browser page open and Facebook hidden from sight. But sure enough, after 5 or 10 minutes, their self-control collapses and they open the Facebook window to see what’s happened in the last few minutes (the answer is normally not a lot!). The same goes for those students who sit with phones on their desk who check the phone immediately as soon as a message is received. If distractions are nearby they will win!
The question is then: how do we get rid of these distractions? The obvious answer is we tell students not to have distractions close at hand. The problem with this advice is that you know it won’t be followed. Instead, we have found that if we can’t get students to do the right thing all the time, we can at least get them to do the right thing when it really matters. We do this by helping them self-select.
We tell students that there are two types of work they have to do: high powered brain work and low-powered brain work. The low-powered brain work consists of homework and repetitive tasks. For this type of work it isn’t ideal that they have their computer on, or a phone at hand, but if they do, it isn’t going to be the end of the world either; it will simply mean that what would otherwise take an hour to do, takes two hours instead (not an efficient use of time, but hey it’s their choice!). On the other hand, students are also going to have high powered brain work. This is the stuff we have discussed above, like memorising notes and practice papers. When doing this type of work students need to remove all distractions. Unfortunately, that means not only is the phone off, but it is in another room. Similarly, the computer will be turned off and preferably in another room. In these moments of high powered brain work, all students will have in their study environment is a desk, a lamp and their notes. As we say, it isn’t perfect advice, but by cutting some slack we have found that students tend to do the right thing when it really matters, and in an imperfect world, this is probably what counts.
Take regular breaks
Because of the fact attention is tied to our physical condition, it is important that students take regular breaks as well. Don’t expect your child to lock themselves in their room for hours on end. Instead, encourage your children to take regular study breaks. But again, in order to ensure that a study break doesn’t turn into another set of endless distractions, help your child master the art of the power break. The power break is a 5 to 10 minute time-out in which they might go outside, kick a ball, do some push-ups, make a cup of tea, or anything else which gets them up and about. What a power break does not consist of is sitting down to watch TV or jumping on the computer, because you can guarantee once a student has been disrupted there will be no return to study.
When all else fails
If all else fails and Facebook and Youtube are winning the battle for attention, here is a handy little trick. In an effort to help the students of the world a number of app makers have developed some handy little programs that temporarily remove distractions from reach of students. For those families using a Microsoft operating system on their computers, download a program called Cold Turkey and for those using Apple, try a program called Self Control. These programs allow you to block certain websites (eg Facebook!) for a specified period of time. In other words, you are not blocking the sites forever, just when you need to.
Also, for other useful apps for study, make sure to check out our article on 18 apps a student shouldn’t live without.