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Effects Of Distraction On Learning

The learning process in humans is complex, and depends on a number of environmental factors. This essay will explore the impact of several of these common distractors on storing and retrieving information, as relevant to a typical college student who is studying and writing tests. The first distractor is auditory; in the context of a college student this could be loud roommates, background music, or a busy lecture hall. Another regular source of interruptions are through text messaging, an all too common sight in any college environment, where students busy social lives present many opportunities for distraction.

The majority of the research shows that these forms of distraction tend to negatively affect the learning process, however there is new research showing that certain tasks done in conjunction may improve performance in certain forms of memory. Careful summation of the current scientific research on these various environmental distractions allow for a strategy to minimize the impact of these factors on a typical college student in order to maximize learning potential.

Audio stimuli is nearly unavoidable and can take on many forms, from direct and purposeful background music, to the ambient noise that is present in any situation. Due to the difficulty in isolating auditory stimuli, it is important that the impact of the varying forms are analysed to select an environment that is suitable for studying. It has been shown that the effect of auditory stimuli on cognitive function is related to how the sound could impact our current activity, rather than the noise itself being a distraction (Zeamer & Tree, 2013).

As such, sounds that come in out of context of the current environment, tend to be sudden and jarring, and can divert attention through an evolutionary reaction that evokes the sympathetic nervous system (Zeamer & Tree, 2013). Zeamer and Tree (2013) examined the impact of auditory stimulation in a lecture setting by exposing students to a number of different ambient and active streams of sound such as construction, movement, unrelated lecture material, laughter, and murmurs. When completing a multiple choice quiz after the lecture, it was found that students exposed to the unrelated lecture material and laughter scored the lowest.

It was theorized that the brain’s evolutionary instinct and familiarity to the human voice predisposed it to distraction from these sources. Considering the results of the Zeamer & Tree study, an appropriate strategy to mitigate the effects of auditory distractions could be the purposeful selection of background music played through headphones. In Chew, Yu, Chua, & Gan, the researchers examined the effects of various types of music on the learning and academic performance of college aged students.

The types of music tested were familiar or unfamiliar, foreign or first language, and no music. The students scores on tasks in word memory, arithmetic, and reading comprehension were measured. In general, it was found that music had little to no performance on task performance, regardless of the type (Chew, Yu, Chua, & Gan, 2016). A successful learning environment could take advantage of this result by using background music played through noise-cancelling headphones to potentially limit the impact of audio stimuli that has proven to impair the learning process.

With a suitable auditory environment identified, the next step in a successful learning strategy is to minimize the distraction associated with socializing in the form of texting. In a lecture environment, if a student is texting they cannot continue to devote their full attention to the lecturer and must multi-task, which is something that research has repeatedly shown to detrimental to the learning process (Dietz & Henrich, 2016).

Dietz & Henrich set out to test the impact of texting in a lecture setting on learning by having students in texting and non-texting groups complete a multiple choice quiz after a simulated lecture. They found that students who were in the texting group performed significantly lower than the non-texting group. In another environment, students reading a passage while texting were found to take longer to read the passage, but scored similarly to a non-texting group when quizzed on the passage (Bowman, Levine, Waite & Gendron).

A take away from these studies is that actively texting in a live setting where multi-tasking will be required will result in impaired learning, while in a situation where focus can be switched between texting and studying, learning outcomes can still be successful. While in general environmental stimuli has found to be distracting, new research has shown that directed distractors can help reinforce memorization patterns, in a phenomenon known as the attentional boost effect(ABE) (Mulligan & Smith, 2015).

Mulligan & Smith demonstrated this effect by presenting study words to subjects in distinct fonts and colours. The study words were accompanied by a square appearing below the word. When subjects were directed to press a key only when the square infrequently appeared as a black outline rather than solid, the subjects significantly stronger results in the following tests on their recognition of the words. At the moment, this concept is difficult to accommodate in any study strategy, however shows great promise for the refinement of learning and study tools in the future.

Developing an effective study strategy requires careful consideration of a number of environmental stimuli that can be distracting and lead to impaired learning outcomes. After looking at the current research on auditory stimuli, an effective strategy seems to be to minimize the presence of sounds that trigger our emotional and arousal based states. Background music was shown not to impair learning, and can be an effective way to block out the sounds that were demonstrated to be distracting.

Another common source of reduced learning outcomes is texting, which can be eliminated by removing cell-phones from settings where multi-tasking would be required, such as a live lecture. It is important to note that the emotional impact of varying the study environment can be a limiting factor in the effectiveness of these strategies. With a sound strategy in place to minimize distractions, new research showed that there is potential for directed distractions to have a place in study tools to maximize learning outcomes and get the most out of every study session.

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