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Distraction Can Be Good For Learning, Psychologists Surprisingly Find

We know from the early age that the best way to study is to sit in a quiet room, to have nobody to bother you and to completely focus on your assignment. It is quite true, but not for all the situations. For some occasions, distractions are not so bad. For example, if you know that you will have some distractions during your exam, it is better to learn the material under the same or similar distracting factors. Let us see what scientists have discovered about this.

Science speaks

The research on this matter began long ago. In 1999, there was an experiment with forty students participating. They were asked to read certain text and to complete a written test on it later. Half of the group read it in a silent room; the other half did it in a noisy one. Then both groups got two tests. They took one test in silence and another one with different distractions. The results showed that those students who had studied the information in silence, did the test in silence better. And those who had read the article in a noisy room showed better results within a noisy context.

Another fun experiment was carried out by researchers and  scuba divers. Divers were asked to learn words while they were actually scuba diving. Afterwards they were also told to take two tests – one underwater and one on land. You have probably already guessed the results: they did better underwater.

And the most recent experiment was conducted in 2015 using computers. A group of students had training to do a task on a computer. Then there was a test. During both training and the test some of the students got additional task to count numbers on a monitor. The results show that those students who got this additional task only during the test did very poorly; and those who had to count numbers during the training as well did well.

There have been lot’s of similar experiments over the years starting in 1930, when scientists became interested in this topic. All the results have proved that the surroundings and a person’s state influence how well the information is remembered.

The role of context and state

These experiments all prove that context-dependent memory actually works very well. Context-dependent memory means that you can remember things better if you are in the same context (environment, room, same circle of people) as you were when you got this information.

Another thing that influences students’ performance is their personal state during learning and testing. This is called state-dependent-memory. If, let’s say, you are well and healthy during the learning but you get ill before your exams and vise versa, your performance probably will not be as good as it could be. The states can be different: you can be hungover, depressed, too excited, sad, nervous, etc. These all are distractions that influence your learning.

Distraction and procrastination are not the same

The concept of positive influence of distractions can be misinterpreted, though. Some of you may think, “well, I can check my social profiles while studying and then do the same during the test and I will do well”.

So, for those of you who thought “Finally, now I have a scientific proof to do nothing”, we have bad news: you cannot simply procrastinate and call it a distraction. If you are, for example, play Angry Birds instead of writing an assignment, it is not good; you need to fight such harmful habits when studying.

We are talking about positive distractions; the distractions that will help you during your exams. Playing video games or watching movies are definitely not some of those.


So, the universal truth did not change – the distractions are still bad for your studying. It is still better to find some quiet place, to get rid of smartphones and other tempting gadgets and concentrate on your studying completely. The scientists just proved one more time that the context and state of a student makes a difference on their performance.

If you know that you will be distracted by your college mates during the test, better study when you are with friends, for example. Try to create the same or similar conditions that will surround you during your test, and you will do good. And try to be in the same emotional state while both studying and passing your exams –  that should help, as well. And remember that these context and state matters can only be of some help; they will not do the whole job for you. The most important thing remains – knowledge. Study hard and try not to only memorize things but to understand them, as well. That will help you to remember them for years and not only till your exam ends.

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