Studying with background noise: Is it always bad?

Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

Imagine a child engaged in doing homework. The desk is clear, the room bright, and you could hear a pin drop. Do you think that’s a realistic scenario? Well, no, I don’t either.

When children are working on school tasks, peace and quiet are rarely the norm. Children are regularly confronted with multisensory distractors, often visual (e.g. a car passing by the window) or auditory (e.g. a conversation in the room) that may interfere with the task at hand.

But do all potential distractors necessarily have a negative effect on learning? Let’s focus on noise – that is, unwanted sounds. Researchers agree that background noise is detrimental for communication between children and teachers in the classroom. However, the picture is less clear when children are engaged in their homework (e.g. doing calculations or reading a text) and have no need to talk with anyone. In this case, whether noise is problematic depends on children’s individual characteristics, the type of noise, and the task they are completing.

The type of noise matters – there is a big difference between an overheard conversation, the steady hum of a ventilation system, and what researchers refer to as mixed noise (a mix of chatter and the sounds of movement/transportation). Both noise that contains verbal information (verbal noise) and mixed noise tend to have a negative impact on memory and attention, as measured by very specific tasks (e.g. remembering a list of digits; identifying a target shape in an array of random shapes).

Verbal noise, but not mixed noise, is also usually detrimental to reading/writing performance – there is debate as to why that is the case, but it is probably because hearing distinguishable words quite clearly interferes more strongly with other verbal tasks than hearing a mix of various sounds.

Why is this useful information? If we know how various types of noise affect performance, we can better define optimal environments. Studies of adult populations suggest that using nature sounds or a mixture of overlapping voices (e.g. similar to the sounds in a coffee shop) to cover up the sound of a single voice can help reduce negative effects on verbal short-term memory – as long as noise levels do not become uncomfortable or dangerous for the ears. This might be reassuring for those who work with such sounds in the background, but more research is needed to determine whether these findings apply to children as well.

“Differences between children, both in terms of cognition and personality, affect the degree to which they are distracted by noise.”

It is also important to keep in mind that there is considerable variability between children. Even if children who are exposed to verbal noise do less well, on average, at a reading task than children working in silence, that does not mean that all children perform worse in a noisy environment. This is probably obvious to educators who work closely with students, and to parents who have seen that while one of their children quickly completes her homework in a noisy living room, another takes twice as long.

Very few studies have sought to determine which personality or cognitive factors explain these differences between children. A study that examined children’s capacity to generate original ideas suggests that children with lower attentional skills, especially in the early elementary school grades, perform worse in a noisy setting. Preschool environments, which are especially noisy, may be particularly challenging for young children. Furthermore, studies of adults and secondary school students indicate that introverts are more likely than extroverts to have their performance impaired by noise.

Recognizing how these interindividual differences between children, both in terms of cognition and personality, affect the degree to which they are distracted by noise highlights the importance of creating learning environments that are tailored to the needs of each individual.

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