How to Create an Effective Learning Environment

A clean effective study environment with a computer pencils and mobilhe phone

You came here to learn faster. Well, the place where you learn, the learning environment, believe it or not, plays a crucial role in your performance. In this case we ought to maximize the things that help it, and minimize the things that don’t. Simple cliche, but it’s perfectly applicable. Now there isn’t a recipe that will work for everyone, but there are a few general steps that are common to anyone. Let’s go.

Choose Lighting Carefully

The lights we’re subject to influence us and can be responsible for a better or worse learning. Before the invention of tungsten lamps, white strong light meant day, weak white light (moon), yellow/orange light (fire) or no light meant night. The changes between these lights were gradual. Then came lamps lit by the power of electricity and despite the awesome benefits it brings, it brought confusion to our bodies.

This machine with a cumbersome programming that started thousands years ago, hasn’t had time to adjust and keeps assuming the same correlation between light color and strength and time of day. And if we don’t purposefully respect those correlations, we may risk confusing our internal clock (the so-called circadian rhythm)

Fine. What’s the problem in my … rhythm becoming confused? One of the problems concerns health. People that expose themselves to lights according to their … rhythm tend to have less health issues.[5]

Ok then. Then what do I need to know about light?

The 3 Things About Light to Pay Attention to

Color

We receive yellowish/reddish light from the sun. The change in color from one to the other is related to the blue and green light not reaching us as the sunset approaches, or the sun rises.

Such is the importance of the color of the light that we’re exposed to that NASA is thinking about installing light changing colors [7], precisely because of the reasons talked here.

Blue light (white light includes blue light, so this applies to white light as well) seems to be beneficial during the day for increasing concentration, reducing reaction time and improving our emotional state [9]. On the other hand, its presence at night deregulates the biological rhythm in a stronger way that yellow/red light does [5].

Intensity

The more intense the light is (this is measured in lm, short for “lumens”) the stronger the effects the color has on us.

Duration of Exposure

The same way, the longer we’re exposed to a certain light, the greater the effects. Being exposed to a holophote for 1/2 second is different than being exposed to a candle for a whole day.

Mimic Outside Light

This being said, what should we do? We should have every light that shines on us to mimic as close as possible an 8-12 hour period of daylight. From the dim morning light,  that gets stronger and whiter until the noon. Then gradually get yellower dimmer and redder until it becomes non existent or very dim. Natural light is usually good. I say usually because there are some exceptions. Rainy or Nordic countries are not blessed with many sunlight. This is why in these countries it is fairly common for people to use strong white lights to combat depression.

In lamps packets it’s possible to read the color of the light they emit in Kelvin (K) (Fig. 1). Yellower lights (1800-3000 K) are better for a cozy environment and for rooms where we spend more night time. Whiter (5000-6000 K) allow us to see better color contrast. For this reason they are better for work where it’s important to distinguish and combine colors.

 

Types of lights according to their color
Types of lights according to their color

Then there’s also the light emitted by electronic devices. For Windows computers there is a free application called f.lux for windows that adjusts the color of the computer screen to match more natural light (white light from dawn to early afternoon, then more and more orange ) With several options for each one for your liking.

Download f.lux

 

If you use tablet or mobile phone there are similar app for Android / iOS.

Conclusion:

  • Prefer environments which are illuminated as closely as possible according to the sequence: white light gradually stronger from dawn to noon, then gradually fainter and more orange to the minimum limit to use before bedtime;
  • Use indirect light sources, especially during dawn, dusk and night.

Use Sound to Your Benefit

The sound, or the lack of it, can be both a distracting factor and a concentration aid. Depends on the person. In addition, the same person may have preferences that vary over time – sometimes they may desire more silence, sometimes more noise / music.

Sound pollution is a source of stress with several health effects [1, 2]. In this aspect studying in quieter environments may even be better for health. For this we either eliminate or change the sources of the noises, we change places, or we change our ability to hear the sound. As for the first two, there are no great suggestions to make that apply to all situations. In relation to the latter an easy and inexpensive way is to use headphones with sound reduction, such as in-ear phones (Fig. 3).

As this is not for everyone, because having a thing inside the ear may not be very enjoyable, there are also headphones that cover the entire ear that also block a large part of external sound (sound isolating headphones) and still others with the ability to create sounds that cancel external noise (noise canceling headphones).

in-ear-earphones_headphones
In-ear phones, headphones and ear caps can be used to block external sounds.

But silence is not for everyone, and even for those that prefer it, that may not always be the case! There are even people who believe that they cannot study in silence. Is it learned or innate behavior [3]? Still, you may simply not want such a quiet environment and some background noise can even help to focus or motivate (some musics can improve our moods). However many people also cannot study in silence. Let’s look at some hypotheses to introduce some sound in the environment, taking the most obvious and common that is by playing music:

  • On youtube, search for “10 hours” plus anything, for example “10 hour sounds”. For example “10 hour relaxing” “10 hour rain” “10 hour thunderstorm”, nature, coffee, fire,
  • Public place like coffee or beach;
  • Turn on TV with the sound low;
  • Put movie / radio / series / playlist to give on computer with low volume;
  • Simulators of sounds online (click to open):

noisli

 

 

a-soft-murmur

 

 

nature-sounds

 

 

Final suggestion:

  1. Grab your favorite hot drink;
  2. Open the following links:

Conclusion

  • Change the sounds you hear in order to reduce distractions, improve concentration and improve your mood.

Deal Correctly with Distractions

What distracts a person may not distract another. If one prefers absolute silence because the noises distract, another may not be able to study without ambient music.

The best way to combat most of the outside distractions (on the other hand, the internal ones are when you think about how good lunch was or what you’re going to do in the afternoon) is to do so in a way to avoid expending mental energy (will power for the effort to needed to refocus yourself) to deal with them. What does that mean?

An example: if you’re with the television on, it’s normal that you hear from time to time something that catches your attention. The more you concentrate on that thing, the more effort you will have to make to get back to what you were doing. Even if you do not look, you may be constantly exerting the willpower not to look, (e.g. a movie that you like is on).

Either way, you’re expending energy that could be used to learn better. The best way to combat it is to eliminate these expenses. So, from the worst to the best would be: turn off the television (with the command within reach); Turn off the television; Disconnect the TV from the wall outlet; Go to a room without television; Go to a place where there is not even a television nearby.

More examples and possible solutions to minimize the will power expenditure:

  • Facebook – block hosts file, go to location without internet;
  • Computer game – uninstall, use a weaker computer that can not run it;
  • Unpleasant food smell – leave the place;
  • Phone – put it in airplane mode, turn it off, put it far where it is out of sight and hands so that it takes more work to go there to pick it up than to continue to study;
  • Objects that evoke strong memories – remove them from view.

If you do not leave them, it means that you will have to use mental effort to stay focused, and that is not what we want. Any energy that is not used in the learning is wasteful.

  • The best way to deal with distractions is to eliminate them at the root. Do it and you’ll have more mental stamina for learning.

Decorate to Motivate

We all have a mission. With so many things to do during the day, though, it is not always present in our minds. Having a way to put that mission and goals more visible helps keep our mind focused and motivated by reminding us that “This is why I have to continue!”.

Use posters in your environment to refresh your mission, goals and aspirations
Use posters in your environment to refresh your mission, goals and aspirations

Be Somewhere Appropriate

Studying in an amusement park or nightclub (taking the obvious disadvantage of noise, lack of lighting and place to put material) is not conducive to studying, if not for other reasons, because no one else around you is doing it. On the contrary, everyone is doing something that you would like to do.

So it’s usually a good idea to go to a place where everyone is working, or at least not doing something that you would like to be doing yourself. Then you need to have eye contact with people and them with you. Being in a cubicle in a library does not evoke the same feeling as being at a library table with a view of everyone, and where you see everyone around you working.

Examples of Places to Consider

  • Libraries (faculty, school, public);
  • Home – in principle is the one from which you have more control over the environment (light, sounds and company);
  • Coffee shops;
  • Nature – pencil, paper and your head. Sometimes it ‘s all that’ s needed;
  • The social weight of seeing others doing a certain activity that you would like to be doing is felt in the study. So, try going to a place where you feel more willing to study, just because everyone around you is doing it.

Clean, Organize and Simplify

There are those who say that people who place extreme importance on cleaning are harsher at making judgments and determining punishments. On the other hand the hygienic hypothesis (Okada, 2010 # 2) suggests that from a certain level, the higher the standards of cleanliness of a country, the greater the number of autoimmune allergies and diseases (simplifying are those in which the cells of defense of our body rebel against us) are present there.

According to some doctors hygiene should be more about reducing the number of bacteria and not eliminating them altogether (except cases of patients with immune deficiencies) since not only 95% of them are harmless, but in small numbers they are serve as dummies for immune system to practice. For example a few thousand salmonella are child’s play to our immune system. The problem is when there are millions.

Regarding organization and minimalism (the latter is basically a way of living that certain people adopt where they try to minimize everything that is not absolutely necessary) depends.

Side-by-side comparison between a cluttered, full of books and posters room (left) and a minimalist clean one (right). You decide which one would make the best learning environment.
Side-by-side comparison between a room full of books and posters (left) and a minimalist clean one (right).

In terms of creativity, for example, adopting minimalism can be counterproductive, because it minimizes the number of different things we can be inspired by or think of. IDEO, a company that excels in originality and innovation, as their offices filled with several crazy props. How much longer would it have taken Newton to think of the theory of gravity if he were not at the foot of a fruit tree from which fruits would fall and instead into a white room?

However, litter is unlikely to make the room any more useful – objects must be minimally related to the theme, which, in that case, is unlikely. On the other hand having multiple objects increases the chances of looking at someone and distracting you. If the objects are related to the job, this can even be positive.

Whether we adopt minimalism or not, the more organized a learning environment, the easier it is to find things, because even if we forget where something is, we know how to go there by reasoning. For example if we put all the papers of a given topic in a given place, then any paper of that topic can only be there. So logically organize things, so that their place makes sense.

If, in addition to being organized, we get used to putting things in the same places, it has the advantage that it becomes a habit. That is, you put the brain in auto-pilot, which is way to save mental energy, necessary for high performance.

Initially it takes a greater effort, because instead of just throwing things you will have to expend some effort to put them in the right places. The difference is that after some time you no longer need think about doing so. This also has the advantage that reduces the likelihood of losing something.

Comparison of mental effort through time between using an habit to store something or putting it anywhere. In the beginning we need a greater mental effort because we need to remember to put the thing in that specific place. But when it becomes an habit, it's automatic. On the other hand, to find something, it's impossible to have it harder than if that thing was randomly stored. So, putting the thing in a specific place is at worst the same as anywhere, but almost always better.
Comparison of mental effort through time between using an habit to store something or putting it anywhere. In the beginning we need a greater mental effort because we need to remember to put the thing in that specific place. But when it becomes an habit, it’s automatic. On the other hand, to find something, it’s impossible to have it harder than if that thing was randomly stored. So, putting the thing in a specific place is at worst the same as anywhere, but almost always better.
  • Keep the study environment clean but without going to excess for example using alcohol to disinfect every corner of the house;
  • Organize the work environment in a way that is logical;
  • Get used to putting things in the same places.

Be with Great People or Be Alone

You have two possibilities: either you study alone or with others. Preferring one or the other depends on your personality but also on the type of company you have available. Each member of a group composed of highly motivated and equally competent people goes further than if they were to work independently. First, in a group of competent people each should have slightly different knowledge of each other. Some are better at some parts others are better at others.

It is much quicker and more efficient for us to ask someone a question, see it answered right away enabling us to get back to learning, than looking for the answer in the middle of things we already know. The person that explained the answer to you is also benefiting because the act of explaining, itself:

  1. Is a form of active learning;
  2. Triggers the memory, which makes it stronger;
  3. Can help them find holes in their knowledge (see rubber duck technique).

We have moments of willpower weakness at different times, in which we feel like stopping and doing something else. In a group of equally motivated people it is unlikely that these moments happen at the same time. They pull you back in. Later you pull them back to work.

In contrast, if you are with unmotivated people you will be able to notice that it is you who have to do the heavy lifting. They will want more frequent breaks, they will be distracted more easily with things not related to the work. But if you don’t go with them and have a cup of coffee or talk about whatever they’re talking they can see you as antisocial or not part of the group. But in this case your performance is reduced compared to working alone. Therefore, a group with the same working motivation is preferable. Or, for lack of one, work alone.

  • Be in highly motivated and competent groups, and with whom you get along (needle in the haystack? I wouldn’t argue that… );
  • If the above is not possible, and if the goal is performance, prefer to learn alone (read – without people you know).

Conclusion

So light, sound, distractions, decoration, what others do at the venue, organization, and company. It is these 7 of the most important factors that, if taken into account, have managed to build an excellent study environment.

References

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