Studying with Distractions
By Cindy Wooldridge
We have previously written about studying while listening to music. As a brief reminder, it depends on the task and your personality whether background music will help, hinder, or not make a difference while studying. In this piece, we are again talking about studying with distractions, but this time we are covering a research article in which the background noise was speech instead of music. How many times have you tried to read in a coffee shop, noisy hallway, or student center? Was the language behind you just background noise or did it have an effect on your ability to understand what you were reading?
In much of our everyday lives we are forced to try to block out background language in order to focus on the task at hand. Halin, Marsh, Hellman, Hellström, and Sörqvist (1) sought to better understand the conditions under which we are able to do so effectively. At the outset, you should know that background language is usually shown to be distracting and hurt any processing of language (2). What Halin et al. were looking at was how that distraction changes based on the difficulty of the material you are trying to learn and working memory capacity (explained in detail below).
Here’s what they did… Participants were given four passages to read about fictitious cultures, two in an easy to read font (Times New Roman) and two in a difficult to read font (Haettenschweiler).
While reading two of the passages, they heard someone describing another fictitious culture, which they were told to ignore. They then took multiple-choice tests over the passages to assess their learning. The results can be looked at in two ways. 1) When looking at the easy font, the passage with the background noise was remembered much more poorly than the passage read in silence. However, when looking at the hard font, the passage with background noise was remembered a little bit better than the passage read in silence! (I know what you’re saying, “WHAT?! You mean distraction improved performance? How can that be?” Read on, friend.) You can also think of the results in this way: 2) When distracted, people did better on the hard task, but when in silence, people did better on the easy task.
In order to fully understand those results, we also need to talk about working memory capacity. Essentially, working memory capacity refers to how much information you are able to hold in mind and process at any given time. People vary on this trait; some people have high working memory capacity and other people have low working memory capacity. So Halin et al. also looked at how these results might vary depending on someone’s working memory capacity. What they did was looked at each person’s “level of distractibility” (basically just the difference between how they did when it was silent vs. not) and checked to see if that was related to working memory capacity when reading the easy font or hard font. For the easy font, as working memory capacity went up, distractibility went down. The more someone can hold in mind, the less likely they are to be bothered by background noise. But for the hard to read font, it didn’t matter. When you really have to concentrate to understand something, it doesn’t matter who you are, distractions are less of a problem.
As with a majority of the research we talk about (And certainly the 6 strategies we promote!), when learning is more difficult, recall is often better. Here the more difficult the task, the better students were able to learn it in a distracting environment. So, what advice can we provide for students based on this work? Essentially, for difficult material, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, you’re going to put in a lot of effort to learn that material and that concentration will help you remember the material. However, if you need to learn something that is somewhat easy, you may be tempted to study with friends around or in a noisy environment (because hey, it’s easy). It turns out that you are probably going to remember less and/or it’s going to take a lot longer to process that information. This is particularly true for some people and may not apply to those with high working memory capacity. To be on the safe side, you should probably study without someone reading to you in the background!
(1) Halin, N., Marsh, J.E., Hellman, A., Hellström, I., & Sörqvist, P. (2014). A shield against distraction. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 31-36.
(2) Jahncke, H., Hygge, S., Halin, N., Green, A.-M., & Dimberg, K. (2011). Open-plan office noise: Cognitive performance and restoration. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 373–382.