Create a space to cue your brain to learn

image of chemistry notes

Among the challenges of transitioning to online learning, one that comes up frequently in my coaching conversations with students is getting (and staying) focused in the physical space where we now have to work and live.

Just a short time ago you had many choices for places to study – a table or nook in a library, an empty classroom, a corner of a student center, a wide windowsill in one of the older buildings, a sunny spot on the floor in one of the newer ones, and all kinds of labs and workshops and other specific spaces containing equipment you used to complete assignments.

Now – what a contrast. For the sake of our health and that of others, most of us have had to leave campus for the foreseeable future, and we are all confined to our own space, whether it’s in a house, a townhome, or an apartment. Some lodgings have more space than others. Most of us are sharing our home space with family or roommates. And those few who have remained on campus are limited to their own living space.

Students are discovering all sorts of challenges with their living situations, including noise created by others, having to share common spaces, barking dogs, needy young siblings, increased responsibilities such as cleaning and caregiving, and more – and all the while, they are trying to attend online classes, stay on task with assignments, and prepare for exams.

Since no one can change the need to #stayhome right now, how can you focus in the midst of your challenges? One thing you can do is make adjustments to your space that cue your brain to learn.

We often rely on cues – a location, particular music, motivating quotes on a laptop screen, and so on – to motivate the brain to get in a working mode. College students may feel they need to be in a particular spot to focus on their work, for example a library desk or a certain spot in a lounge. Such a location cues the brain that it’s work time. Students also might find that certain locations don’t work for them – many students, for example, try not to study in bed because it makes them feel sleepy, sending a “time to rest” message to the brain.

Even if your normal “work cue” areas and settings are not available, you have choices. Here are some actions you can take to improve the environment that is available to you:

  • Figure out what space is most likely to help you concentrate. If you have a room to yourself, that may be the best bet. Whether you are alone in your space or not, though, the key is that you have an area dedicated to you and your work.
  • Set up your space for success. Make sure you have somewhere to write (a table or desk, or in a chair with a lap desk), the resources you need (books, computer, paper and writing utensils, and so on), and a place to sit where you can get comfortable for extended periods of time. If you are in a bedroom, consider saving the bed for relaxation.
  • Communicate with others about your schedule. One way to improve the effectiveness of your workspace is to ask people around you to minimize noise at the times when you plan to use it. This is especially important if you have synchronous class meetings, an exam, or a challenging assignment to complete. Knowing you’ve asked for quiet at certain times can also help cue your brain to move into work mode while you have the chance.
  • Address distractions. If you have no choice but to contend with noise from housemates, family members, pets, or anything else, see what you can do to mask it. Consider using headphones with calm music that has no lyrics (classical or ambient tunes).
  • Include inspiration and encouragement. What can you surround yourself with that will inspire you to persist? Consider enhancing your work area with photos, quotes written down and posted on a wall, special keepsakes, anything that you can look to when you need a boost.
  • Try to keep work in one place. If you can, save your work area for schoolwork only, and use other areas for relaxation or non-school tasks. Having a dedicated workspace, even if it shares a room with non-work areas, can help cue your brain to work when you are there and to let work go when you are not.

Right now you have the opportunity to learn what works – and doesn’t work – for you in a work-from-home setting. Take some time to figure out what particular cues help your brain to focus and get the job done. This knowledge is likely to serve you well in the future as we continue to deal with the growth of distance learning and working.


Sarah Kravits, Academic Coach, Spring 2020