Philosophers generally agree that we perceive and understand the world via our senses. We form what they might refer to as an “epistemic relationship” with our surroundings (a fancy way of saying that we give and take information wherever we go by using our senses and faculties). If we see a bright light, we might shield our eyes. If we hear someone crying, we may feel a sense of sadness ourselves. And, as cartoons make clear, if we smell a pie resting on a window sill, we get hungry!
What does this have to do with learning? Well, if we are intimately influenced by our environments, that must mean our study spaces require forethought and consideration.
This isn’t a new idea. Several researchers have spent plenty of time exploring the impact of physical environments on learning outcomes. And what they found underscores the importance of creating a dedicated learning space. Physical surroundings, access, layout, light, smells and sounds all impact the way we learn. In order to give ourselves the best possible chance to learn effectively, we need to pay attention to our surroundings.
Luckily, as online learners, you have the ability to create a study space from the ground up. One of the advantages of online learning is that you are in control of your environment. If your “classroom” (read: your bedroom or kitchen table) is too noisy or cramped, you can always change it.
In this article, we want to help you get the most of your learning space by offering a few tips and points to consider. Below, we have structured our advice according to three basic conditions for a productive learning space: solitude, comfort and focus.
As you enter your new online classes this fall, give thought to the following advice and create a dedicated, productive learning space at home.
Solitude isn’t always necessary for productive learning. Take group projects, for instance, or study groups; sometimes, it can be beneficial to hash out ideas, explain concepts and have concepts explained to you. For similar reasons, you benefit from learning in the presence of a great online teacher, which is how OES works.
Sometimes, though, you just need to be alone. In particular, when you study for a test, write an essay or simply review your notes, you may find that solitude is the best course of action. In this section, let’s explore the first steps in creating a productive learning space: choosing a dedicated, quiet and separate space free of interference.
Choosing the Right Spot
There is no agreed-upon “right spot,” in the universal sense. Rather, we want you to consider the conditions for productive study when you select a space. If you are learning from home, try to designate a single room in the house where you can study. Learning thrives on structure, so it’s important that you return to the same spot most (but not all) days.
If possible, a quiet room works best. If you know that your noisy siblings prefer the living room, you might select a room far from the living room. If your neighbour to the left mows their lawn every day, perhaps you choose a room on the right side of the house.
We understand that not all homes come equipped with multiple free rooms. That’s okay. You can turn your bedroom into “the right spot” by setting it up for learning, removing distractions and creating a comfortable, dedicated corner in which to focus (more on those points below). Moreover, you can find the “right spot” outside your home too, at a coffee shop, library or other quiet, comfortable spot.
Finding Your Preferred Level of Quiet
Why is it so difficult to concentrate on studying when others are talking? Why do you read over the same line of text three or four times when a song plays in the background?
According to experts, it’s because these are examples of “meaningful sounds.” When we hear human speech – whether from a nearby conversation or atop music on the radio – our brains naturally want to listen. We want to parse out that information. Unfortunately, the brain isn’t great at splitting its attention.
Therefore, try choosing a space free of “meaningful sounds” like the chatter of siblings or the gabbing of strangers. As for “meaningless sounds” – often white noise – it’s up to you how much you can tolerate. Some learners benefit from white noise, which allows them to concentrate. If you benefit from white noise, consider a white noise machine or an online white noise generator.
Solitude from Distractions
Solitude doesn’t just mean removing yourself from other people. It refers to removing distractions in general. As you set up your learning space, remove distractions like:
- Your phone
- Video game consoles
- The TV
- Non-school-related books you’re reading
- On your computer: browser tabs of social media sites and YouTube
Remember, we’re crafting a dedicated learning space – meaning that it is dedicated solely to the pursuit of knowledge.
Feeling physically uncomfortable can be a significant impediment to productive learning. It’s tough to formulate your thoughts in a five-paragraph essay when your back is killing you. And don’t even try to make sense of trigonometry when you’re starving for lunch.
As you create your ideal learning space, give thought to physical comfort. In this section, we discuss the importance of ergonomics, clothing, temperature and basic bodily needs.
The Value of Ergonomics
Ergonomics is a scientific discipline concerned with how the human body interacts with its physical surroundings. You will often hear chiropractors, orthopedic surgeons, and physiatrists talk about ergonomics as it relates to your spine, in particular.
The hard truth is that the human body wasn’t made to sit down for long stretches. In fact, it wasn’t meant to do anything sedentary (other than sleeping) for too long. That’s why it’s important to mind your ergonomics. Consider buying an ergonomic chair and an ergonomic keyboard to relieve the physical stress of inactivity and repeated actions. And find a desk for online school that feels sturdy, spacious and correctly sized.
Additionally, one of the best things you can do for your body – spine, legs, arms and all – is to get up and take a walk once in a while.
Dressing the Part
In our article on online learning tips, we discussed how “getting dressed” can impact your studies. When you roll from your bed to your desk in pyjamas, you blur the lines between personal leisure time and study time.
Therefore, part of creating an effective learning space is arriving at that space ready to learn. Pick out a comfortable outfit, something neither restrictive nor itchy. Even the simple act of getting dressed can signal to your brain that it’s time to perk up and start the day.
Open Access to Your Basic Needs
Let’s review a few of your basic needs. As a human, you need energy in the form of food, and hydration from water. You require fresh air, movement and sleep. (According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you also need friendships, a sense of accomplishment and feelings of security – but those are matters for another article!).
As you craft your learning space, consider your body’s basic needs. Keep snacks, like fresh fruit and whole grains, in close range in case you get hungry as you study. Have a water bottle within arm’s reach to stay hydrated. And, if possible, situate yourself near an operable window to benefit from fresh air.
Fiddling with the Thermostat
If you’re taking online courses in Ontario, be prepared to face some extreme weather: inclement winters, sizzling summers and unpredictable transitional seasons. Although you study indoors, you may still need to control the ambient temperature to create a more hospitable learning environment.
According to researchers at the Berkeley National Laboratory, temperature plays a crucial role in productivity. They calculate a 2% decrease in performance per degree Celsius above 25 degrees, and a more marginal performance decrease in colder temperatures. The sweet spot, they found, is somewhere around 23 degrees Celsius. Who knew?
Here at Ontario eSecondary School, we love it when science can teach us something new – even something hyper-specific like the effects of temperature on productivity!
A Quick Note on Colour Psychology
Colour Psychology is an interesting field of study. Some researchers have completed great work on how different points of the electromagnetic spectrum influence our mood, focus and emotions. But others, like marketers and New Age practitioners, eschew the science and make broad claims about – for instance – how the colour green can heal us.
Let’s take a more straightforward approach. Ask yourself what colours make you happy, calm and focused. What colours make you feel good? Then, consider surrounding your learning space with those colours.
In a way, our previous topics – solitude and comfort – are in direct service of focus. Focus is the aim, the end goal of creating a separate and comfortable environment.
When we sit down to learn, we want to give ourselves wholly to the task at hand. Doing so requires some advanced planning. In this section, we’ll discuss how to incorporate a time management system into your study space, and touch on the importance of cleanliness, brightness and self-understanding.
A Personalized Time Management System
Building a time management system into your dedicated study space can help you stay on track with your goals. There are several ways to structure a time management system, but you cannot go wrong with the classic combo: an agenda and a timer.
We explored this system recently in our article on learning tools for virtual students. Essentially, the agenda takes care of your long-term goals and obligations – upcoming tests, papers, project deadlines, etc. And the timer measures your in-the-moment studying – the length of your study sessions, allotted time for working on a paper or project, allocated break time, etc. Keep both of these items within arm’s reach (whether physical or digital) in your dedicated learning space.
We also have a fantastic article on time management skills we encourage you to read. In it, we discuss starting your day with purpose, setting goals according to the “1-3-5 Rule,” and organizing your calendars.
The “Lighter” Side of Learning
Like temperature, extremely low or high levels of light can impact students’ focus and productivity. Research shows that students in dimly lit rooms tend to perform worse than those in bright rooms. Conversely, if the light source is too cool (think fluorescent lighting), it may also impact performance.
Luckily, nature provides a perfect, well-round light source that studies show helps concentration: natural sunlight. When choosing a study space, try to find somewhere with a window (bonus points if the window is south-facing, enjoying all-day sunshine). If you don’t have access to natural light, you can always purchase a full-spectrum lightbulb, which emulates the sun’s wavelengths.
Clean and Clutter-Free Studying
If you want to optimize your study space for focus, clear a few minutes at the start of each day to clean and declutter.
Visual clutter is a lot like distracting noise (see above). It floods our brains with excess sensory information, limiting our ability to concentrate on a task. Further, it may even cause us undue stress, according to psychologists.
If you have read this far, it means you are invested in proactively creating a productive learning space. You’ve found an isolated spot, made it comfortable and filled it with focus-facilitating tools. Now, all you have to do is keep it clean and clear. In your trusty agenda, pencil in time each day to declutter and organize.
As you prepare to learn from home again this fall, take a day or two to fashion your ideal study space. Select a remote spot away from distractions, optimize it for comfort, and follow the tips above to ensure that it’s focus-friendly. If you have any more questions about how to succeed at Ontario eSecondary School, please feel free to reach out. Our knowledgeable staff and passionate teachers want to see you learning in your perfect environment, wherever that may be.