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How Effective Are Your Study Habits?

Student studying in the libary

With final exams right around the corner, now is the perfect time for students to think about how effective their studying habits really are.

Let’s face it: ‘studying’ often means lounging on a couch or bed with earbuds in, Facebook and Twitter running, and a cell phone within reach. Is it that students aren’t aware of how multitasking affects their information retention, or is that they literally cannot keep themselves from checking email and instant messages while working?

Slate.com reports that investigators from the lab of Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, watched students (263 students total in middle school, high school, and college) completing schoolwork/studying and recorded what they were actually doing once a minute for 15 minutes. The researchers checklists including expected studying behaviour such as writing on paper, reading a book, and typing notes, but also included activities such as looking at Facebook, texting, using email, talking on the phone, and watching television.

Even though the students were aware they were being watched, and were told to “study something important” researchers found that it “wasn’t long before their attention drifted: Students’ “on-task behavior” started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent only about 65 percent of the observation period actually doing their schoolwork.”

It seemed that the students were literally unable to work continuously for 15 minutes without “media multitasking,” a habit that has become all too familiar to students growing up in an ever-increasingly technological world.

It’s important to note that the evidence is clear: when students multitask while studying or completing homework, they do not learn as well as when the work receives their full attention. As Slate reports, they “understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.”

According to Slate, some researchers are proposing that the ability to resist an incoming message notification or a buzzing cell phone is the new Marshmallow Test of self-discipline, and could determine students’ potential academic success levels. If students are unable to stop themselves from multitasking while in class, completing schoolwork, or studying, it could seriously affect their academic careers.

The important point for students to note is that “the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time.” Most students believe that they are able to multitask effectively, when the truth is that the brain simply cannot keep up. One task (usually the information retention) will therefore not be completed successfully, leaving students unable to recall what they ‘learned’ even 10 minutes prior. As well, the brain becomes fatigued when constantly switching from task to task, and although texting and tweeting don’t seem like complex tasks, they use the same area of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that listening to and deriving meaning from a lecture does. While humans are able to do two tasks effectively if they use different areas of the brain (for example, folding laundry and listening to the radio), it is simply not true that students can learn as well while multitasking as they would if giving learning their undivided attention.

While students likely don’t want to acknowledge that “media multitasking” is a problem, studies undeniably show that being distracted by technology while learning leads to poor grades. In Rosen’s study, “students who used Facebook during the 15-minute observation period had lower grade-point averages than those who didn’t go on the site.”

So given that technology isn’t going away any time soon, what is the solution? Rosen suggests students take “tech breaks”: 2-3 minutes of texting/messaging/emailing after every 15 minutes of uninterrupted work time. Knowing that a “reward” is coming for working continuously for 15 minutes can help students stay focused and learn better.

To read Rosen’s study on “Media-induced task-switching while studying,” click here.

To read some of Oxford Learning’s tips and tricks for effective studying, click here.

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