Monday, February 01, 2010

NO MUSIC While Studying

A common point of contention between parents and teenagers is whether or not to allow listening to music or other “multitasking” activities while doing homework or studying.

Many teenagers do multitask while studying. And some of them do quite well in school.

The question, however, is not whether certain very bright students can multitask while studying and still get good grades. The real question is whether these same students, and especially average or underachieving students, would do better if they were to focus only on their studies, without interfering distractions.

A republished L.A. Times article does an excellent job of addressing the issue, and of presenting statistics and expert opinions on the subject:

My own opinion, based on nearly four decades as a professional academic coach, is unequivocal. I think it's obviously a mistake, and a major one, to allow any “multitasking” while doing academic work – whether involving music, instant messaging, video games, or any other distractions. Yes, people are different, and certain people find multitasking easier than others. But it’s common sense that no one, no matter how talented, can pay attention to and concentrate on two different tasks (never mind four or five) as well as he or she can on just one.

Do the following experiment right now:

Try thinking of two different things at the same time, say: the taste of strawberries, and the quadratic formula. In the exact same instant of time, think of both things. Can't be done! The best one can hope to do is rapidly switch back and forth between the two thoughts, dulling mental focus and wasting valuable energy.

Obviously, mindful unitasking works far better in terms of quality and efficiency than does frenzied multitasking, and this distinction becomes critically important when applied to important academic activities like doing homework, writing papers, studying for tests, etc.

Quoting from the article:

“Research has shown that, with practice, people can improve how often and when to shift focus to other tasks most efficiently, and they can sharpen their ability to visually scan between windows open on a computer screen.

But decades of experiments on adults have proved that performance suffers when people try to multitask.”

The problem is that studying and homework are often boring. They aren’t always fun things to do. And, unfortunately, many parents have allowed fun and instant gratification to rise to the top of their teenagers’ lists of values.

Parents need to remember, and children need to be taught, that it's called home “work” for a reason. It's not supposed to be fun; it's supposed to get done, and done well.

Work is, by definition, generally not fun – at the moment you’re doing it. But it’s a lot of fun later on, when the mega-rewards of consistent, disciplined effort and deliberate sacrifice toward worthy goals come pouring in (e.g. success, happiness, money, pride, confidence, a plethora of life choices, etc.).

Contradicting the hedonistic value systems of too many Americans is the fact that boredom is not the worst experience a person can have. Parents must to learn to say “no music” and make it stick without fearing the momentary displeasure or rolling eyes of their own teenagers. Teenagers would profit by learning to sacrifice overrated comforts and delay gratification for the much greater pleasures that attend the accomplishment of major life goals later on. Indeed, most American students would do well to aim to become more self-motivated and self-disciplined, less dependent on external stimulation, and more honestly self-reflective.

Still a multitasking holdout? If so, I have a question for you:

How many tests have you taken with the comfort of your favorite music playing in the background?

The correct answer is zero, driving the final stake through the heart of the notion that it's somehow a good idea to listen to music while studying. Clearly, if you train yourself through repetition to need the support of energizing background music in order to focus your mind and perform at your best academically, the end result will not be pretty.

If maximum success in school is important to you: NO MUSIC (or other distractions) while studying!


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.


braxton said...

Several things. I am a 14 year old, who is researching this topic. The experiment cited in your article was where students had to do a task while keeping count of a number of high pitched beeps in the headphones. That experiment does not accuratly simulate a student studying with music on. First off, a student would be listening to his/her favorite music, which would probably get them in the zone and relax them as opposed to a high pitched beep that would possibly cause them to experience stress. Also, they had to keep track of the number of beeps in the experiment. Students would never have to count say constant beats in the song for its entirety. And secondly, the "Decades of research" was done on adults, not adolescents. Finally, many students cannot concentrate in the ideal "Well lit quiet room with no distractions." Their minds race and get bored quickly; even if they know it is important such as studying for a final. They can't help it. Music helps alleviate that by taking that edge off (if they do not fully concentrate on the music.)

Anonymous said...

thats stupid, i work WAY better multitasking. im 14 n while i was reading this i was listenin to music when i do my work at school i put on my headphones XD and when we have to read at the end of the day my teacher puts on music its sooo helpful i reme,ber EVERYTHING i read. when i was reading The Giver for school i read it during that time and when he played the same song again i remember that part of the story

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you just can't start working for hours( just sitting on your desk without any action). In these case music really helps. Music won't help people who are already studying but it will help people that just don't like to do anything. So what is better : with music and 70%+ work done or without music + mass of wasted time+ 0% of work?

Chris Borland said...

Suppose you're driving down a steep hill, and suddenly you lose your brakes. Your only hope of survival was to steer your car gingerly through a narrow gate to an uphill road just to your right. Would you want to have music blaring in your ears at the same time? Would you take a cell call? Would you have a t.v. on?

Why not?

It's simply common sense that you cannot pay attention to two things simultaneously as well as you can pay attention to one thing at a time, and research clearly confirms this. The inefficient, wasteful use of mental resources (i.e. of your mind) inherent in multitasking necessarily hurts performance on a primary activity by stealing energy and focus necessary to simultaneously accomplish a secondary activity.

Yes, you can find exceptions to this rule, but the rule is a rule because it's generally true. There are multitasking students who get wonderful grades and SAT scores ... but research shows that generally speaking these students could be doing even better if they gave up multitasking in favor of singletasking.

If you're multitasking, and you think it isn't negatively affecting your grades, you're probably fooling yourself; it's possible (perhaps likely) that what's actually going on here is that you haven't yet developed the self-discipline required to handle the boredom that's often just natural part of digging into a big plate of U.S. History or precalculus.

What's most important? Avoiding boredom ... or gaining academic confidence, competence, discipline, pride, and all the myriad future rewards and choices they bring?

In my experience, that's really the key question behind the choice to multitask or singletask.

Anonymous said...

When you are doing homework or studying and listening to music you are not fully focused on the music. The music blocks out extra noise that would normally distract you. This varies for people. If you can't multitask then that's a personal problem, but I don't think that its correct for you to say that it distracts everyone. I,myself, enjoy having headphones in while doing work. It makes me feel like I'm away from everything, and it's just my books, my music, and me. Driving a car and texting or whatever has nothing to do with studying. That is a whole different story.

Anonymous said...

one simple equation


Chris Borland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Borland said...

Numerous studies show that not only do students do more poorly on each task when multi-tasking, their own subjective evaluation of their performance greatly overestimates the actual reality.

Attending to more than one stimulus at one time is distracting. In my experience as an academic coach for the past 35+ years, there is NO exception to this rule. You may feel you're doing better when listening to music while studying, but in actual fact, you'd be better off by just learning to tolerate a certain amount of boredom and tedium (some things in life are boring and tedious; it's best just to accept this fact and get used to it).


You've got to decide what's most important to you: 1. avoiding boredom and tedium, or 2. maximizing grades, scores and academic success.

You can't have both.