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By Paul Terranova
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
Hybrid and remote learning arrangements allow learners to take courses any time and any place that can accommodate a laptop or mobile device.
According to the 2023 Higher Education Trend Watch report, institutions will continue to normalize online learning, as most students want more online options and asynchronous learning experiences. As remote and hybrid learning become more popular, it is important that learners be able to identify the best conditions under which they can retain information and complete their work. Clearly, finding the right setting for learning is a crucial consideration.
Two fundamental questions: how much background noise is acceptable in an online learning environment—and what should be considered “noise?” While some learners work and retain information best in silence, others feel that music is the key to concentration. This phenomenon has forced many educators to grapple with the idea of allowing students to listen to music in the classroom. Most students at the middle-school level and beyond have some sort of earbuds or headphones, and some students will try to use them at every opportunity. In a remote setting, however, it is impossible to control what learners are listening to while they progress through a course.
Unfortunately for many students and hopeful music teachers, research offers little to support the notion that music improves learners’ concentration. In one of several Taiwanese studies, participants performed reading comprehension tasks while listening to classical music, hip-hop, or no music at all. The students who performed these tasks in silence scored the highest. The study also found that the more intense the music, the worse students scored on task performance and concentration.
These findings support the conclusion that fans of heavy metal should consider having something lighter on in the background while they work. But it can be difficult to convince learners that music is a detriment to their concentration. And despite the research from Taiwan, other studies suggest that listening to music can lead to positive changes in learners’ moods as well as to increased creativity.
For example, many younger learners enjoy having lo-fi (low-fidelity) music on while they study or complete tasks. Lo-fi is characterized by slower-paced, chill hip-hop beats that use audio imperfections and lower sound quality to create a minimalist aesthetic. Millions of people enjoy lo-fi and listen to it while working. One popular YouTube channel, Lofi Girl, offers three continuous live streams set to repeating visuals of animated characters:
- lofi hip hop radio: beats to relax or study to
- synthwave radio: beats to chill or game to
- lofi hip hop radio: beats to sleep or chill to
The Lofi Girl channel now has more than 12.5 million subscribers and thousands of listeners at any given moment. In addition, Spotify, which has its own “Study” category of music, also has a whole genre called “Lofi,” and its most popular lo-fi playlist, “lofi beats,” has over 5 million likes.
While silent environments might ultimately be best for all learning, those who prefer something thumping in the background should consider the following factors:
The right volume is even more important than the type of music being played. To no one’s surprise, one Taiwanese study found that the louder the music, the worse learners perform. The study also revealed that the type of music was irrelevant to enhancing performance. It does not matter whether you listen to John Coltrane or Bad Bunny, as long as the music is playing at a volume that maximizes your performance and cancels more distracting noises.
Type of Work
While some learners prefer music for reading, others listen to it while writing or working on math problems. Because remote and hybrid learning environments allow learners to complete tasks and assignments on their own time and out of order, learners have an opportunity to schedule different types of work for different learning environments. If, for example, they perform better on writing assignments when listening to music, they can schedule those assignments accordingly—and save work that requires silence for another, quieter time.
Silence may not always be preferable, or even possible, for some learners. Despite research that says the brain loses focus when multitasking, many learners argue that music helps them tune out far more distracting noises. These learners may only be able to read and work in noisy environments, such as coffee shops, parks, subway cars, and break rooms.
Regardless of the situation, the goal of music should be to block out the world so learners can focus as much as possible on the material or assignments in front of them. Ultimately, music might be the best “background noise” available to help learners retain and synthesize information.
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