I Said, 'Not While You Study!'
Science Suggests Kids Can't Study and Groove at the Same Time

By Jeffrey Ghassemi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Memo to: Frustrated parents

From: Health section staff

Subject: Your kids' study habits

There's some impressive new scientific research on your side when you tell your kids they can't possibly do their homework with the TV blaring, instant messenger crawling or MP3 player pumping. Unfortunately, explaining it will require you to get them unplugged from their iPods.

Tell them this: A recent study shows that the ruckus of such multi-tasking may make them learn less, and to use the wrong parts of their brains to store information. Tell 'em they can look it up in the Aug. 1 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS). Tell them it was done by researchers at UCLA (that's the University of California, Los Angeles, if they don't know).

Tell them you know nearly everybody has this bad habiit, that a 2005 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 60 percent of seventh- to 12th-graders interviewed reported multi-tasking -- watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web and chatting online -- some or most of the time while doing homework.

You could even concede you know about people like Lauren Kyla Pitts, a 19-year-old junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, who insists that listening to music (pop, R&B, "all kinds," she says) and IM'ing with her friends are important parts of her college study routine. "For the most part I think it helps me concentrate and avoid daydreaming, which can be really distracting to me," she says.

But researchers have suspected for some time -- just as you may have -- that we pay for trying to perform more than one job at a time.

"Most would agree that there's always a cost associated with multi-tasking," said Russell Poldrack, associate professor of psychology at UCLA and co-author of the PNAS study. "We found that it can have a negative impact on learning."

To test the relationship between multi-tasking and learning, Russell and colleagues assigned 14 twenty-somethings to an exercise that involved learning how to sort various shapes into different piles based on trial and error. Each participant performed the task under two conditions: first, without any distractions; then, while listening to high and low beeps and counting only the high ones. Participants were tested on what they learned under each condition.

(At this point your kids will point out they are not counting beeps while they listen to Death Cab for Cutie. Tell them to just be quiet, that you're getting to that.)

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) -- a technique that tracks increases in blood-oxygen content as an indicator of activity in different parts of the brain -- to evaluate participants' brain activity and function during both conditions.

"Our results told us that people can learn under either condition, but the way they learned [material] and the brain systems involved were different," said Poldrack. "For the task performed while multi-tasking, the subjects' knowledge was less flexible, meaning they could not extrapolate their knowledge to different contexts."

Investigators also discovered a difference in the brain systems and types of memory activated under multi-tasking and non-multi-tasking conditions.

The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in sorting, processing and recalling information, is critical for declarative memory (things you can learn from text). While performing the sorting task without multi-tasking, the hippocampus was active. The distractive beeps, however, shifted activity away from the hippocampus to the striatum, which is necessary for procedural memory (that is, habitual tasks, like riding a bike).

Memories in the hippocampus are easier to recall in different situations, said Poldrack, whereas those stored in the striatum are tied closely to the specific situation in which they were learned. "This means that learning with the striatum leads to knowledge that cannot be generalized as well in new situations."

"The bottom line is that active distractions involved in multi-tasking are going to reduce one's ability to learn," he said -- even if standard performance measures, like grades, show otherwise.

For many experts, these results are just confirmation of what they already suspected.

"With multi-tasking, you're getting -- at best -- a superficial understanding of the studied material," said David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Meyer offers the example of reading: "You read at various depths of understanding. You can get the bare minimum or, if you read carefully, you can also make inferences about the work."

"When learning with distractions, students' brains are trying to wing it by using a region that is not the best suited for long-term memory and understanding," said Meyer, whose own research suggests that multi-tasking takes more time and involves more error.

Please Listen: It Helps Me

At this point your teens may insist that their distractions enhance their studying.

According to Meyer, multi-tasking has less to do with study help and more to do with pleasure. "It's sort of like eating dessert while skimping on a proper meal -- you forgo nutrition for enjoyment," he said.

There are students, like Parker Fishel, 18, of Alexandria, who would take issue with these remarks. Fishel, who is about to enter Columbia University in New York, finds music or TV to be relaxing while studying.

"I'm particular about my study environment, and music makes me more comfortable," he said. He also appreciates the consistency of music, which helps him avoid the distractions of erratic ambient noises.

His 14-year-old sister Gwen, who is entering ninth grade at West Potomac High School, prefers quiet when studying for tests. "For exams, I most definitely don't have anything going, it's just me and the textbook," she said. "But for simple things like worksheets, I may turn on some music," she said.

"I would rather have them study in silence," said Jim Fishel, the siblings' father, "but they've proven that they're able to learn the material."

Just Background Music

According to Poldrack, results from the UCLA study give researchers a good idea that active tasks -- involving "doing" processes, like counting beeps or singing along with a song in your head -- interfere with learning. What's less clear is whether passive tasks, like simply listening to background music while doing homework, is really such a bad idea.

"Our findings do not speak to passive kinds of distractions," Poldrack said. He admits that more research is needed to determine the effects of such stimuli.

There is no fixed rule for what works best, and kids' study preferences will vary, says William Stixrud, a Silver Spring neuropsychologist in private practice. He admits that multi-tasking activities can affect the depth of learning and application of knowledge, but suggests that background music may provide some benefit.

For some kids, music functions like white noise, drowning out distractions, according to Stixrud, who also teaches study skills to his clients. For others, it can have an emotionally soothing quality -- especially if the thought of school increases their anxiety -- or may even help some tolerate boredom associated with their work. And for those with attention-deficit disorder, who are constantly seeking stimulation, some distraction may be what they need to concentrate on their studies.

While Stixrud understands the claim that music can help some kids learn, he is loath to accept other forms of distraction as study aids. He suggests that TV, instant messaging and other "constantly changing" media are more likely to divide the mind and interrupt studying than background music.

"The most important thing to me is for kids to understand themselves and what they need," he said. Stixrud encourages students to conduct their own experiments with and without multi-tasking behaviors, to see what works best for them.

Poldrack agrees with the advice. "If listening to music makes doing homework more enjoyable for kids, then it's probably a good thing on the whole even if it does slightly affect their learning," he said. Through future studies, Poldrack wishes to address outstanding questions on the subject, including the effects of multi-tasking on brain development and the kinds of distractions that have the most impact on learning and those, if any, that may actually help.

In the meantime, you may search for the good in your children's study habits. Jim Fishel hopes that multi-tasking -- so long as it does not disrupt learning -- may actually help equip his children with skills to deal with the distractions of the workplace. "The world isn't a quiet place. Multi-tasking now could just be their preparation for the real world."

But you may not want to tell your kids that. ยท


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