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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Create a Good Environment for Studying at Home

A core goal of education is to create lifelong learners. Success in the workplace requires an ability to pick up new high-quality knowledge. The foundation for these learning skills is the study habits that are acquired from early in school. After all, most learning in life takes place outside of the classroom.

We use the term study habits all the time, but we do not often take both parts of that term seriously. Clearly, we want students to study, but what about the habit component?

Habits are actions that people perform automatically and without thinking. The human mind is a habit creation machine that looks for actions performed consistently in a particular environment and allows those actions to be performed again in the same environment without thinking. For example, you don't have to think about where the light switch is in your bedroom, how to press the gas and brake pedals in your car or how to type letters on your computer keyboard. You have done these actions so many times that they have become habits.

The study environment needs to harness the power of habits. We want students to think about the concepts they are learning, but we don't want the environment to suggest other actions that will get in the way of studying. Here are three things that can make studying more effective.

1) Minimize the Habits of Distraction

In the modern world, children are attached to iPods, smart phones, text messages, Facebook and instant message. From early on, children have developed the habit of checking these sources several times hourly. Those habits break into a child's concentration during study, reminding him or her that it is time to check the phone or computer.

Unfortunately, this multitasking gets in the way of acquiring high quality knowledge. It takes time to shift attention from homework to some other source of information and additional time to shift attention back. Not only does that constant shifting influence the amount of time it takes to get work done, it also affects the quality of the study itself.

To create a more effective work environment, create a distraction-free zone during work time. Park the portable technology elsewhere in the house. Keep the smart phones and iPods out of arm's reach. Remove instant messaging from the computer and ban Facebook during study time.

2) Create a Consistent Work Space for Study

The habits children create reach all the way down to the level of where they should look to find the tools and supplies they need to study. That means children's work space should be set up so that they do not need to search each day for pencils, erasers or calculators. Children who study at a desk should keep that desk set up the same way each day. Children who study at a communal table at home should have a nearby bin or tray with supplies where they can regularly find what they need without having to spend a lot of time thinking about how to prepare for studying.

3) Find an Effective Location and Posture for Studying

Modern technology is so flexible that it does not place many constraints on where or how children study. It is common to see a child writing briefly at a desk, then working from a laptop computer on the floor, and then lying down on the couch to read a book.

It is hard to maintain the same level of concentration when lying on the floor or propped up in bed as when sitting at a desk. The body's habit when lying down is to relax and sleep. It is not helpful for a child to have to fight that tendency when studying. In addition, lying down promotes passive reading. It is hard to take notes or type while lying down. So students who are lying down are playing a less active role in their learning than those who are sitting up.

The advantage of promoting these behaviors is that after a while the habit system kicks in. Eventually, sitting in a consistently structured environment free of distracting technology is simply how studying gets done -- now and for life.

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

navitasdavidt's picture

Great tips, they will be equally useful for the adult students we have at our vocational school

Marmaduke Motley's picture

We are having a Parent Symposium in June to help parents become confident about engaging more with school. I feel that many low income parents feel intimidated not because they don't care about their children's education but because they don't KNOW HOW to engage with educators without feeling inadequate. Organizing skills and Study Habits is one of the topics we intend to touch on so thanks for these tips. I will be distributing them to the parents. Giving parents more practical "How to" tips they can use now may help increase their self-efficacy as an academic advocate for their child. Can you talk now about "How parents can use the Summer vacation period to enhance their child's academic and career learning during some of those EIGHT weeks (and still enjoy some rest and recreation)? and why it is important to do so? It usually takes so much time to recover lost skills after summer. And it seems like the agrarian school calendar is not going to change any time soon.
Thanks.

Ellen Z.'s picture
Ellen Z.
Reading Specialist from Hellertown, PA

Art, I say "Amen" to that! It was good to read your blog. I teach Reading at Lehigh Carbon Community College, and today spoke of that very subject with my students and posed the question: "What is the best Reading environment?" When they write journals about what they read, one of the things I require from them is to tell me a bit about how their reading process was. Did they have any distractions? Where did the do their reading?

I purposely bring this topic up after they have written their first journal. I had a few students who wrote: "I read my assignment on my bed;" "My friend kept on texting me;" and "the TV was on." We then talk about how they can improve their reading/study environment.

The Smartphones, IPods, and laptops are definitely distracting, and so are some of the websites they like to browse between looking at Facebook statuses, Tweets, and flashing videos, which are in flux non-stop.

I have four children and encourage them to sit down at a desk to study or work. Currently, ITunes during this time is forbidden as is Facebook or Gmail, but I do allow them to go on to educational sites. They enjoy Cubert's Cube, which is a website they tried in the summer. This site encourages story writing. It's colorful and very user-friendly. It also has story-starters to inspire them to write and a gallery where they can draw or upload a picture to illustrate their work. I allow that site and also a few others they use at school like Spelling City and Prezi. Otherwise, the computer is off, IPods are away, and the books are out.

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