Study and Learning

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Avoiding Distractions

There is working, and there is working smart. Putting in long hours of study does no good if little is accomplished. Time is wasted when the learner does not remain on task.

  • Attention span = 1 / multitasking

  • Attention span = 1 / internet usage

  • (Attention span)curiosity

Multitasking is actually multisequencing. Tasks are performed in short sequences in close approximation. However, more tasks shorten the sequences. It is difficult to comprehend complex biomedical knowledge in short time frames. If each task requires a "problem state" to be maintained, even for a few seconds, then tasks interfere with each other. A problem state is a directly accessible intermediate representation of the current state of a task. Performance levels will decrease if two tasks both require the maintenance of intermediate information in short term memory. If two tasks want to retrieve a fact from memory at the same time, only one task can proceed. (Borst et al, 2010)

Distractions can occur in the form of noise. In one study of the effects background noise and interruption on learning health information, the group of students watching a videotape with no distraction learned significantly more than a group watching the videotape with noise and with interruption, suggesting that distraction during health teaching adversely affects the ability to learn health information. (McDonald et al, 2004)

Background noise interferes with comprehension, and noise in the form of irrelevant (not on task) but meaningful (can be understood and processed) speech is most disruptive. (Oswald et al, 2000)

A study comparing use of media in multitasking showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory than low media multitaskers. Heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. Heavy media multitaskers were distracted by the multiple streams of media they were consuming and more likely to employ exploratory, rather than exploitative, information processing, sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information. Low media multitaskers were more likely to employ top-down attentional control and focus their attention on a single task in the face of distractions. (Ophir et al, 2009) Thus, multitasking with many media inputs is a way to find sources of information, but not comprehend them.

Or, take the advice that Mr. Hoots gave Ernie: "Put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone!" (

Develop a study plan with time periods that promote optimum attention. Use one source of information at a time. Eliminate distractions. Attention span begins to decay significantly after just 20 minutes. Therefore, after 20 minutes of intensive study, stop. Attend to other concerns, if even for just a minute: answer a phone call, send a text message, check e-mail, eat a snack, converse with a friend, etc. Begin the next 20 minute period with review of an item from the last period. After 2 study periods, break for at least 5 minutes. After 4 study periods, break for at least 30 minutes.


Borst JP, Taatgen NA, van Rijn H. The problem state: a cognitive bottleneck in multitasking. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2010;36:363-382.

McDonald DD, Wiczorek M, Walker C. Factors affecting learning during health education sessions. Clin Nurs Res. 2004;13:156-167.

Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009;106:15583-15587.

Oswald CJ, Tremblay S, Jones DM. Disruption of comprehension by the meaning of irrelevant sound. Memory. 2000;8:345-50.

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