This is a short article looking at setting up an optimal study environment, and how anyone can set this up at home with a few small rules.
We won’t look here at how to do the actual revising – practising and committing lots of information to short-term memory – as that will be the second step. First, we need to set up the revising space itself.
Our goal is clear: we want to be able to focus, without interruptions, our brain happily retaining all the information we feed it. There is a recognised relationship between being relaxed and creating new neural connections – also known as remembering. This is a type of relaxation achieved by removing tensions and interruptions, arriving at state of concentration in which studying appears effortless, and learning itself enjoyable. This pleasurable feeling of being consumed in an activity is called flow. It is not just important in studying, but is an optimal state of human happiness and creativity in all our lives. To quote psychologist Mihályi Csikszentmihályi: “[Flow is] being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
We can’t guarantee that revising for exams will live up to this ideal, but we can use tricks and ideas from specialists in different fields to remove as many obstacles as possible.
To start with, let’s look at sound. If the state of flow is a place in which concentration is maximised and effortless, then it follows that anything which can interrupt us should be avoided. There are two steps to creating a truly soothing sound environment: firstly, we must shut out all external sounds. This means being in a separate space away from the family, preferably with a large “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, turning all notifications off on our phones, closing the windows to remove all outside distractions. Secondly, once the outside world has been shut out, we use music to create a supportive atmosphere for concentration.
What works and what doesn’t is not so much a question of taste, but of musical form. Any music that is repetitive, calming and hypnotic will do the trick: baroque solo piano like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the cinematic jazz of The Necks, ambient music such as Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. What is critical is that the music creates a constant, reassuring atmosphere: it should not have any sound interruptions, any strong grooves, sudden mood changes. It can have a pulse but not a dominant rhythm, and should be instrumental, without vocals. Natural soundscapes can work well too. Play this over a speaker in your room at a volume that is loud enough to drown out any sounds coming from outside.
If you aren’t used to listening to this kind of music, you can give your ears a break once an hour by listening to something uptempo to get you dancing around when you take a break.
Lighting is also important: we want to avoid any harsh light and shadow. Closing the curtains on a sunny day, and turning on soft lights in the room can help to create the sense of being in a cocoon.
Finally, you do not have to be seated at a desk, but you should sit anywhere that is comfortable. That can be in an armchair with a computer balanced on your lap, on the floor on a cushion, wherever you feel best. Remember to take breaks every hour or so, and to keep a glass of water next to you. Something sweet and nutritious like dates or a banana is a good study snack to keep nearby for break time.
This article owes many thanks to the playwright and creative writing teacher Diane Samuels, who first showed me the link between a controlled, warm, supportive environment and an optimal state of flow for creative expression.
Jonathan is a maths, English and modern languages tutor, currently training in voice and speech disorders. Jonathan has worked with a wide range of students including those with Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and Autism. If you would like to work with Jonathan, lessons are from £70 per hour. Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org