Obstacles to Effective Learning

By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant

 Study every day.

Pay attention during all of your classes.

Ask questions.

Chances are good you’ve heard these three keys to success during your years of schooling. There’s a reason why your parents and teachers recommended those learning strategies: students do better when they try harder. But how effective is a study session if your friends or the temptation to check Facebook constantly distract you? How well can you pay attention in your American history lecture if you only got four hours of sleep last night? While the specific learning strategies students use receive a lot of attention, we often lose sight of other factors that influence our ability to learn new information or perform well on tests and quizzes.

The purpose of this blog is to share information with you about how your sleeping pattern, exercise habits, and exposure to distractions impact your brain’s ability to learn and process information.

I need my six hours of sleep

 College students are notorious for staying up late to hang out with friends, binge watch Netflix, or study for an upcoming test. Sure, we all like to spend time with our friends, get caught up on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or feel prepared for our Intermediate Stats test. However, most of us fail to consider how maintaining such an unhealthy sleeping cycle impacts our brains and bodies. Dr. James Maas, author of Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program that Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance (1999) and widely regarded sleep expert, has dedicated his career to studying the effects that sleep has on our capacity to learn and perform at our highest levels.

How much sleep do you get every night? Four hours? Six hours? Eight hours? One of my roommates during undergrad always used to tell me, “As long as I get my six hours of sleep, I’m good to go.” If you’re like most college students, six hours of sleep sounds pretty good. But, what if I were to tell you that Maas’ research has found that people who sleep 4-6 hours every night for an entire week and then perform a series of challenging cognitive and physical tasks perform just as well as participants who are well rested, but legally intoxicated? It’s true. A lack of sleep can severely impact how well our brains and bodies perform. Maas suggests the average adult needs between 8-9 hours of sleep every night. Sound impossible? Make sleep a priority. If you sleep every night from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. (or from midnight until 8 a.m.), you’ll get your eight hours. To give yourself a chance to wind down and get more sleep at night, make the most of the daylight hours.

Another reason why sleep is helpful relates to a process known as Memory Consolidation. Throughout the course of the day, we learn hundreds of new pieces of information as we talk to other people, listen to the radio, read newspapers, or scroll through Facebook and Twitter. Our brains process thousands (maybe even millions) of sights, sounds, and other stimuli through our senses. That’s a TON of information. We can’t possibly remember it all! While we sleep, the brain sorts through all of the information from the previous day. This is when the brain decides what was important and what wasn’t, keeping important information and “deleting” the unimportant. This is the process of memory consolidation. If you spent four hours that day studying for your French history class, then your brain is going to identify that information as important and begin the process of storing (or, consolidating) it into long-term memory. The information the brain deems less important (e.g., the information you spent less time paying attention to) is going to be “deleted. This is why it’s difficult to remember what you had for breakfast four days ago – it’s really not that important so the brain removes that information from your memory.

Here’s why sleep is important to memory consolidation: the longer you sleep, the more information your brain can sort through and begin to consolidate into long-term memory. If you only give yourself six hours of sleep instead of eight, then your brain has less time to consolidate information into your long-term memory.

Besides setting an earlier bedtime for yourself, what else can you do to get more sleep? Maas has three suggestions. First, remove as many stimuli from your surroundings as possible. Remember, one of the purposes of sleeping is to give your brain a rest from processing information. So, if you sleep with a radio or television on, your brain picks up on the noise and your sleep rhythm is disrupted. At a speech he gave during the 2010 Great Plains Psychology Conference, Maas described how even the light emitted from an electronic alarm clock is enough to interfere with sleep. Second, if you like to workout late in the evening before bed, there’s a chance you’re messing with your sleeping habits. As you exercise, your body temperature rises. But, in order to go to sleep, your body temperature needs to lower. Working out shortly before bed makes it difficult for your body to cool down, so it’s more difficult to fall asleep. Or, you may be able to fall asleep, only to wake up a couple of times during the night or you feel groggy the next morning. Third, Maas advocates setting up a pre-bedtime routine. Calming activities such as reading a book, writing in a journal, or listening to soft music are all things we can do to help our bodies calm down and prepare for sleep.

 Exercise is for more than getting that “beach body”

 A healthy exercise routine also has positive effects on our ability to learn new information. No, you don’t have to run eight miles a day, do 500 sit-ups, or 100 pushups. Researchers have found that simply doing aerobic exercise (such as going for a jog or riding a bike) for just 30 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week is enough to boost your brain’s learning capabilities for up to 6-8 hours after you finish exercising. How? As we exercise, our brains release a chemical known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). Simply put, BDNF is a natural steroid. The presence of BDNF positively impacts our cognitive efficiency and makes it easier to process information and store it in long-term memory. The more regularly you exercise, the more regularly you have elevated levels of BDNF in the brain. So, even if you aren’t motivated to get a perfectly sculpted beach body before Spring Break next year, you can use your academic goals as motivation to get into the gym or head out for a bike ride.

 Facebook, texting, and other distractions that hinder your learning

 Getting enough sleep and exercise can improve your brain’s ability to learn and process information. However, simply being well rested and settled into an exercise routine is not enough to guarantee success. You also need to pay attention to how the environment around you may benefit or harm your brain’s capabilities.

Take a minute to visualize the environment you typically study in. Is your cell phone within reach? Do you have distracting Internet sites open (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) on your laptop? Is the television on in the background? Having these distractions present in your study environment increases what educational psychologists call motivational interference (e.g., Fries & Dietz, 2006). Motivational interference refers to the decrease in our motivation and on-task behaviors as a result of the presence of tempting distractions. Unfortunately, students who experience high levels of motivational interference experience diminished motivation to continue studying, produce lower quality homework, and perform more poorly on tests and quizzes than students who minimize motivational interference.

So, you could be well rested and settled into an exercise routine, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Instead, it could all be wasted if you surround yourself with distractions during your study and homework sessions. In addition to motivational interference, research has found that the human brain cannot multitask (Medina, 2008). Most of us think we can switch between one task and another (like switching between studying for a quiz and sending text messages) and still function at an optimal level. Wrong! Instead, asking our brain to switch back and forth between one task and another challenges and makes our brain tired. Trying to multitask reduces the how much information we retain from study sessions. By minimizing the presence of distractions in our study and homework sessions, we can increase the quality of those sessions. So, put your phone on silent, close the Facebook tab on your laptop, and focus on studying. You’ll be surprised by how much easier it is to learn when you don’t have so many different things competing for your attention.

 Closing thoughts

 Remember, specific study strategies are important for your success. Study, work diligently on your homework, and ask questions. Being a proactive student will pay off in the form of good grades, positive relationships with your instructors, and enhanced opportunities for graduate school. But don’t forget that other factors also impact your learning outcomes. By getting enough sleep, your brain has time to rest and consolidate information into your long-term memory. Getting plenty of sleep also helps your brain function at its peak during the day. Exercise releases BDNF in the brain, further enhancing its ability to function at a high level. Finally, minimizing distractions when you’re studying allows your fully rested and BDNF-filled brain to process information more easily. By taking sleep, exercise, and the presence of distractions into account, you can make it easier on yourself to learn new information and perform at a high level.

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