Does music help or hinder revision?

In the run up to the Summer exam season, when even the most laid-back students begin to think that some revision might be a good idea, teachers are likely to be asked if music is a help or a hindrance.

The current crop of GCSE and A Level students are probably too young for their parents to have been devotees of the ‘Mozart Effect’; Those claims made in the 1990s have long been debunked and were a mixture of overgeneralisation from Frances Rauscher’s original research on the effect of a particular Mozart piano sonata on a specific type of spatial learning, popularisation by the media, and marketing of Mozart recordings. The results could not be reliably replicated and the wider claims for an effect on IQ were never made in the original research.

So, listening to Mozart won’t make us smarter, but there is research showing that music can raise task performance. The most likely reason for this is that music raises the arousal level of participants, increasing their performance. An example is a study by Shellenberg et al (2007) who reported improved cognitive and creative task performance in children and adults after listening to music (see the abstract here).

On the other hand, some research has shown that listening to music is counter-productive to learning. Jones et al (2000) found that the variability in the auditory input was the key factor. Alley & Greene (2008) found that vocal music impaired performance (as did listening to speech) but not instrumental music. These effects happen because processing an additional, auditory, channel is a distraction to cognitive processes which require us to use our working memory capacity to hold and process items of information.

Why then does some research point towards a beneficial effect, and other studies indicate that music impairs performance? The answer may lie in these areas:

1) individual differences between participants.

Most studies report summary results: the overall effect among all the participants, but this may obscure differences in individual responses. There is some evidence that personality traits play a role in this, with negative effects on introverted participants but not extroverts (Dobbs, Furnham & McClelland, 2011), possibly because of differences in optimal arousal levels between these two groups.

In a recent study, Researchers looked at how prone students were to boredom (Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019), Advance online publication). They found that more boredom-prone individuals who tended to seek distraction (and so perhaps are most likely to play music while working) were the most distracted by background music. This is possibly because they tended to focus more on the music than the set tasks, whereas for less boredom-prone individuals the music provided just enough stimulation to prevent them becoming bored with the tasks.

2) Differences between the type of tasks studied. Crucially are they like revising for an exam?

Often research features simple, easily replicable tasks. Exam revision in contrast is complicated, involving not only recall of information, but also the formation of complex associations, the understanding of abstract models and application of all this to novel questions. Research studies such as that by Alley & Greene (2008) indicate that the more complex the task, and the greater the requirement for abstract reasoning, the greater the reduction in performance caused by music. It may be that the harder the learning gets, the more we should avoid distractions such as music. In a study specifically looking at revision, Perham & Currie (2014) found that music with lyrics impaired learning (irrespective of whether the students liked the songs or not), but there was no significant difference between performance when listening to instrumental music or in quiet conditions.

3) What is the type of music?

Many of the research studies mentioned featured instrumental music. That probably isn’t the first choice for most students but it may be the option that doesn’t interfere with cognitive processes. Perham and Currie (2014) reported that instrumental music did not impair revision significantly and Hallam, Price and Katsarou (2002) found that 10-12 year-old pupils actually performed better at a memory task when listening to a pleasant melodic piece than no music and much worse when listening to to an unpleasant aggressive piece.

4) What is the alternative to music?

Typically in a research study the control will be silence, but what will conditions be like where a student is revising? Hopefully they will have a quiet space to work in but this is not always the case. Schlittmeier et al (2012) collected data on the impact of 40 different sounds on working memory task performance. These included background speech, traffic noise, music and duck quacks. All these impaired performance, the greatest interference being produced by background speech. For those who don’t have a quiet study space and need away of blocking out such distracting sounds, listening to music over headphones could be beneficial.

How to decide?

Overall, most of the research indicates that while pleasant instrumental music doesn’t impair cognitive performance for most people, it won’t enhance it either. So the safer option would be not to play music when revising. In some circumstances, however it could be helpful. Answering these questions will help students decide:

1) Is there a lot of background noise where I have to revise?

2) Do I prefer to work in a lively environment with a group, as opposed to working quietly on my own or with a good friend?

3) Do I find it easy to concentrate on a single task, such as revising one topic?

4) Is the music I want to listen to instrumental, rather than songs with lyrics?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then you can probably listen to music quietly with no harmful effects on your work (and if you need to cut out distracting ambient noise it will be helpful). Otherwise, it’s probably best to save the music for the times between revision sessions.

References

Alley, T. R., & Greene, M. E. (2008). The relative and perceived impact of irrelevant speech, vocal music and non-vocal music on working memory. Current Psychology, 27, 277-289.

Dobbs, S., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 307-313.

Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019). More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

Hallam, S., Price, J., & Katsarou, G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils’ task performance. Educational Studies, 28, 111-122.

Jones, D. M., Alford, D., Macken, W. J., Banbury, S. P., & Tremblay, S. (2000). Interference from degraded auditory stimuli: linear effects of changing-state in the irrelevant sequence. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 108, 1082-1088.

Perham, N., & Currie, H. (2014). Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28(2), 279-284.

Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35, 5-19.

Schlittmeier, S.J., Weißgerber, T., Kerber, S., Fastl, H. & Hellbruck, J. (2012). Algorithmic modeling of the irrelevant sound effect (ISE) by the hearing sensation fluctuation strength. Atten Percept Psychophys 74: 194. 

Image: Pixabay

Learning and long-term memory

A while ago I wrote a post about how we can structure learning to make the most of pupils’ working memory capacity. A recent conversation on Twitter prompted me to write this post on how an understanding of long-term memory can inform our teaching.

Short-term and long term memory

Both these terms are used in everyday English, but psychologists tend to use them in a specific way. Our short-term memory is thought to have a limited capacity and duration, holding a few items for a short period of time, usually just a few seconds. In contrast, our long-term memory has a huge capacity and stored memories can last a lifetime.

Types of long-term memory

Our common experience is that we have different types of memory. We may, for example, have a memory of a childhood birthday which allows us to recall sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions. This seems quite distinct from the memory of what the word ‘elephant’ means, or what the capital of France is. Psychologists have classified these memories into three types (although further distinctions are possible):

Semantic memory – memories of facts and figures, for example knowing what a bicycle is, being able to name the parts of a bike and explain their function.

Procedural memory – memories of how to perform an operation, for example being able to ride a bike.

Episodic memory – memories of specific events and personal experiences, for example the first time you rode a bike unaided. Episodic memories contain not only the specific details of the event, but the context and emotions of the experience.

Evidence that these types of memory are associated with distinct areas of the brain comes from studies of brain-injured patients, and from brain imaging. Some patients who have sustained brain injuries retain abilities in one area but not others. An example is the much-studied amnesiac HM who could form new procedural memories, such as the skill of mirror-drawing, but not semantic or episodic ones (Corkin, 2002). While memory function can be highly distributed in the brain, procedural memories are associated with activity in the cerebellum and motor cortex, episodic memories are associated with activity in the hippocampus and semantic memories with activity in the temporal lobe.

Long-term memory and learning

The two are inescapably related and we could define learning as a change in long term memory. This happens when information is transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory and incorporated with the information already held there. To make use of this information, we must retrieve the information from long-term memory.

Teachers can use an understanding of these processes to improve the efficiency of learning:

    Introduce new information gradually Information must be processed to be effectively incorporated into memory. Introducing new information too rapidly will not only reduce the proportion that is retained, but prevent it being effectively integrated with prior learning. This risks creating an incomplete understanding of concepts and a limited ability to apply knowledge to problem solving because of gaps in our understanding. This will of course vary from pupil to pupil, so it’s important to build in assessment that will inform the pace of future planning. Resist the temptation to plough through content at the expense of learning.
    Contextualise new information In everyday life we find that it is easier to remember information that has meaning. It’s easier to remember a friend’s phone number or birthday than a random string of digits with no context. Research supports this idea. Our consolidation of information into long-term memory and subsequent ability to retrieve it is improved when that information is presented in context, allowing us to readily make connections between new and existing information.
    Provide time and tools for practice To effectively consolidate new memories, connections must be made with existing knowledge. We need to give students enough time to do this. For semantic memories, this includes opportunities to explore new knowledge and concepts by applying them to novel situations and problems. For procedural memories, opportunities should be given to practise operations and procedures, and to use any equipment or materials needed to do this.
    Testing works better than reviewing Students May view revision as literally that, re-reading information that they have previously learned. Research shows that repeatedly attempting to retrieve information from long-term memory is a much more effective strategy. Quizzes, tests, and opportunities for self-testing will help students learn new information much more effective than reviewing content. For semantic memory, recall quizzes and tasks requiring the correct use of information, including past exam questions, will help. For procedural memory, opportunities to do things, and recount how procedures work will be beneficial.

Practical examples

Some practical examples of these strategies include:

  • Quizzes at the start of a lesson about the content covered previously
  • Checkpoints in the lesson to assess understanding of information
  • Taking time to look at the ‘big picture’, placing new learning in the concept of overarching principles or concepts of the subject
  • Drawing diagrams that connect new information with existing knowledge, within and across topics / subjects
  • Practice at applying new knowledge to solve problems, either in class or as homework, to consolidate semantic memories and improve their recall
  • Practice of new routines, operations and skills to achieve goals or solve problems to consolidate procedural memories and improve aptitude
  • Explaining new learning to others, either verbally or in writing
  • Writing test questions and answers, rather than just reviewing knowledge.

You may be interested in other posts on Psychology and education:Exams and stress – Exams: use the motivation, lose the stress

Academic success and exercise – Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE

Working memory and learning – Making the most of working memory capacity