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Managing Distractions: How do I study for my exams?

As students head towards revising for their Yearly examinations, it is a great opportunity to look more closely at one of our Whole of Life Learning Framework Habits, ‘Managing Distractions’.

Modern students often claim that as ‘digital natives’ they are natural multi-taskers, adept at responding to a range of digital platforms at once. So often you might find them revising Maths, whilst listening to their favourite song, have five internet browsers open to find relevant information, whilst simultaneously checking an incoming SMS. However, often students will ‘study’ for hours and walk away feeling that they retained very little. Cognitive architecture provides an explanation of why this may be an ineffective way of studying.

Our brains consist of many different components, but two important components for learning are working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is responsible for short-term storage and information processing. Long-term memory has unlimited capacity. For information to be transferred to our long-term memory, we need to be able to organise information, draw relationships between concepts, rehearse and practise retrieving information using our working memory.

However, working memory has several limitations regarding novel information: it has limited capacity (can retain between 3-5 items during complex processing tasks), is vulnerable to distractions, and information deteriorates over time (less that 30 seconds!).

Humans can only do more than one thing at a time when those tasks are automated (e.g. walking and talking), rather than requiring cognitive processing (Sweller, Ayres & Kalyuga, 2011). Learning tasks often place a heavy cognitive load on our working memory. Therefore, rather than multi-tasking, students are ‘task switching’, which is an inefficient way to learn (Brumby & Salvucci, 2006; Brumby Salvucci & Howe, 2009; Janssen, Brumby, Dowell & Chater, 2010). Task-switching involves dividing one's attention between tasks, and because each of the tasks competes with the other for the limited number of cognitive resources available, performance deteriorates.

In fact, studies found that students who were high intensity social media users during their study time, did this ‘disruptively’, constantly stopping to check and deal with messages that came through, and as a result meant that their grade point averages were much lower (Kirschner & Kaprinski, 2010; Junco & Cotton, 2012). The interesting aspect of the study is that students spent just as much time studying as non-social media users, and yet got very little return for their effort.

So how can you maximise your study sessions and set yourself up for success? Here are a few tips for Managing Distractions:

Health Illustrative

Alex Krause
Gifted Education Teacher (Senior School)/HSIE teacher

Brumby, D. P., & Salvucci, D. D. (2006). Exploring human multitasking strategies from a cognitive constraint approach. In Proceedings of the 28th annual conference of the cognitive science society (p. 2451). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Brumby, D. P., Salvucci, D. D., & Howes, A. (2009, April). Focus on driving: How cognitive constraints shape the adaptation of strategy when dialing while driving. In S. Greenberg, S. E. Hudson, K. Hinkley, M. Ringel Morris, & D. R. Olsen (Eds.), CHI 2009: Proceedings of the 27th annual chi conference on human factors in computing systems (Vols 1e4, pp. 1629-1638). Boston, MA: Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

Janssen, C. P., Brumby, D. P., Dowell, J., & Chater, N. (2010, August). A cognitively bounded rational analysis model of dual-task performance trade-offs. In Proceedings of the 10th international conference on cognitive modeling (pp.103-108). Philadelphia, PA: Drexel University.

Junco, R., & Cotten, S. R. (2012). No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education, 59, 505-514.

Kirschner, P. A., & Karpinski, A. (2010). Facebook® and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 26, 1237-1245.

Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory. New York, NY: Springer Verlag.

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