Remove your headphones!

It’s revision season. Exams are nearly upon us and learners up and down the country are locked away in their rooms revising (I hope they took on board my advice with the do’s and don’ts of revision).


When I was revising for my GCSE’s back in the late 90’s, we only had one television in the house and I didn’t have a mobile phone, so I’d be in my room testing myself against the OCR revision guides for each subject. This didn’t prove very fruitful in all honesty, but I would dread to be revising in the modern world – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Phones, TVs, Laptops, iPads and iPods. You name it, there are so many distractions that face young people today.


What’s the problem?

Due to the problems associated with memory, and the subsequent distractions students face, this can limit the cognitive resources that can be allocated during the learning process. Salame and Baddeley found that the auditory pathway (phonological loop) is susceptible to negative effects of speech and other sounds. In other words, when there are noises in the room, beeps from the phone, the TV on in the background, the music etc, it increases the cognitive load, thus impeding the ability of working memory. What’s worse, when we are reading, we aren’t using the visual pathway (visuospatial sketchpad), we are actually using our auditory pathway as a result of ‘self-talk’. This is largely corroborated by the work of Alley and Greene who also found that individuals are pretty rubbish at judging just how much their working memory is impaired by irrelevant sounds. So when learners are telling you that having their headphone in is helping them to concentrate, they’re likely to be wrong.


What does this mean for teachers?

There is a real need for teachers to promote effective study strategies to learners and this starts in the classroom.

  • Learners should be encouraged to work in silence during independent practice – this includes removing phones, tablets, or anything else with a sound… even peers.
  • I recommend strongly that learners are not allowed to use headphones when working independently – even if they think it helps them.
  • Encourage learners to follow the ‘dos’ on my revision guide, and of course, ignore the ‘don’ts’.
  • When at home, learners should be encouraged to revise in a ‘distraction free zone’. TV off, phone in another room.




6 thoughts on “Remove your headphones!

  1. A slight slant on this here. I’ve played-around with this a lot over the years, and even helped someone else do a research project on it.
    My prognosis is that just the right kind of music/’sound’ can both create a calm reflective mood, and also block-out distracting interuptions. To be honest this really needs to be almost ‘white noise’ music – something really gently ambient and lengthy such as ‘Thursday Afternoon’ by Brian Eno. No lyrics destract our phonological decoding, no great melody lines start us dancing and humming along, but we feel tranquil, and the odd interuptive external noises are blocked-out.
    Ok – a set of ear-plugs might achieve most of this – but I think that the mood-affecting qualities of the right kind of music can make it a useful tool.

    1. No that’s a fair point. There is some research which supports your point too, but haven’t got it to hand. Problem is, I’m pretty convinced that the vast majority of students won’t be listening to that!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment

      1. You are absolutely right – what self-respecting teen given the advice to stick their headphones in would do what I do…?! 😀

  2. Personally speaking I found music very helpful when revising. I’m not studied on the subject (but have read some studies, which I can’t cite as too old!) but if you use fairly straightforward music 4/4 time and that means lots off classical, but also some dance music and it doesn’t distract at all. For me it enhances the cognitive ability as I’d associate memory’s of the subject matter with the sounds and it helped to remember it. Everyone ‘s different, so as teachers – maybe engage in close examination of your students to see if it’s detrimental or beneficial…

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