A Surprising Reason Why Learning Is Harder with Noise

Noise makes it hard to learn, but new research helps demonstrate why.

Posted Jul 23, 2018

Adityamanutd CC0 via Wikimedia Commons
A noisy classroom can be a bad learning environment.
Source: Adityamanutd CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

There are lots of noisy environments in life in which we are expected to learn.  Classrooms filled with students can have a buzz consisting of background noise from the outside or from ventilation as well as the hum of conversations going on.  Similarly, the modern open office environment is filled with conversations, phones ringing, and papers being shuffled and crumpled.

This environment can make it hard to learn new information. 

It should come as no surprise that the consensus of research is that noise makes it hard for children and adults to learn new things.  The question is why?

This issue was explored in a paper in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Maciej Hanczakowski, Philip Beaman, and Dylan Jones.

These researchers explore two possibilities to explain why learning is hampered in noisy environments. 

One observation from memory studies is that people (particularly good learners) are skilled at deciding how to allocate their study time.  They judge which items will be hardest to learn and then study those items longer than the items they judge to be easy to learn.  So, perhaps noise affects whether people can figure out which items will be hard to learn.

A second possibility is that people will recognize that it is harder to learn items presented in noisy environments, but will not be able to adjust their study time appropriately. 

The paper presents several studies of memory whose broad results are pretty consistent.  In these studies, participants studied lists of words presented on a computer screen while wearing headphones.  Some word lists were presented with no background noise.  Other word lists were presented while a female voice read other words at a conversational volume.  In some conditions, participants could control how long they viewed each item by pressing the space bar when they were ready to see the next time.  In other conditions, participants the items were presented for 3 seconds each (an amount about equal to the mean amount of time participants who could choose their study time would pick).  Afterward, participants first made judgements of learning by predicting how many of the words they would be able to recall.  Then, they actually recalled as many words from the list as possible?

Do participants recognize that learning is harder with background noise?

Yes.  They judged that they would recall fewer items presented in background noise than items presented with no background noise. 

A common observation in previous studies is that when participants can choose their study time, they do better at learning than when the study time is set by the experimenter.  For lists presented without background noise, that happened—participants recalled the lists when they could select the study time better than the lists when they could not.  For lists presented with background noise, recall was worse overall (that is, learning was harder with background noise), and being able to control study times did not help.

Are participants able to adjust their study time appropriately?

No.  Even though participants recognize that learning items is harder when there is background noise, they actually studied items for less time when they were presented in background noise than when they were presented in a quiet environment.

Why are participants having trouble allocating study time?

It may have to do with differences in people’s ability to estimate time when they are or are not distracted.  In one study, participants were asked to study words and to try to keep them on the screen for only 3 seconds.  They got feedback if their responses were very fast or very slow, but they had some leeway.  In this study, participants pressed the button after an average of about 3250ms (about 3-and-a-quarter seconds) when there was no background noise, but after an average of 2900ms (a little under 3 seconds) when there was background noise.  Once again in this study, participants recalled more words when there was no background noise than when there was background noise.

Another study looked only at time perception.  In this study, participants saw a circle appear on a computer screen and were asked to press a button when three seconds had elapsed.  In this study, participants also pressed the button after less time had gone by when there was background noise than when there was not. 

If you put all this together, what does it mean? 

People realize that it will be harder to learn things when there are distractions in the environment than when there are not.  However, even if they tried to adjust the amount of study time to account for the distraction, they are unlikely to adjust enough, because people’s perception of time is also disrupted when there is distraction.

Ultimately, when you need to learn something new, try to do so in a place that has as few distractions as possible.  This research also provides yet another reason to hate those open office environments.

References

Hanczakowski, M., Beaman, C. P., & Jones, D. M. (2018). Learning through clamor: The allocation and perception of study time in noise. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(7), 1005-1022.