Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/August 1912/Helps to Studying


By Professor JOSEPH W. RICHARDS, Ph.D.


TO study means to concentrate the mind and attention on a subject, and to keep it there until the difficulties are mastered and the subject understood.

Aside from the philosophical principles involved in absorption of the mind upon one idea or in one line of thought, there are certain physical or even mechanical aids to this end which are well to know. The writer is not skilled in mental philosophy, but has observed certain simple facts pertinent to the subject of studying which may assist others, and therefore he takes this opportunity of setting them forth. Any one can easily determine for himself how true they are, or whether they apply to him personally or not.

The first enemy to concentration is a roving attention, the coming up into the mind of thoughts or recollections foreign to the matter being studied. I have seen a student, supposedly hard at his task, fix his eyes abstractedly on a corner of the room and think for five or ten minutes of something else, then suddenly recollect that his lesson was not being thus mastered, and with an effort, and perhaps a yawn, bring his attention back to his book. Such a youth is in a pretty bad way, as far as study is concerned, yet the remedy is simple, if he will apply it. I have spoken of the effort to bring his attention back to the book; let him, as soon as he feels the inclination to let his attention wander from the book, make the same effort to keep it there, and he will nip the evil in the bud. It is no harder, surely, to hold the attention, to prevent it wandering, than it is to bring it back after it has wandered. But, said youth may say "That is fearfully hard work"; to which we reply that study is admittedly hard work, but the hardest part of it is just this effort to keep the mind steadily on the subject studied. What we mean is, that the student must make a hard, determined and earnest fight to keep his attention from roving, that he must fetch his mind back to the straight road by a vigorous mental effort, as soon as he finds it tending to stray, just as a skilful driver reins his horse back into the highway the instant he sees it turn towards a byway. Keep your mind and its activity well in hand, be its master and compel it to do what you want it to do. Such is mental power.

The next enemy is noise or interruption of any kind, be it even so melodious as the finest music. It acts, of course, by distracting the attention. Drafts of air fluttering a curtain, a door banging, heavy or rapid foot-steps, whistling, singing; above all talking. Here is where students can help each other, by gentlemanly consideration for each other. One's ears are always "at attention" when studying, and everything heard distracts attention to some degree; the only exception is a steady drone or buzz, which becomes unnoticed because of its steady continuance. It is impossible, we admit, to provide absolute silence for the student, but fellow students should minimize as far as in their power all disturbing noises in their houses or dormitories, and the boor who insists on "disturbing the peace" unnecessarily should be given his walking papers; he is the common enemy.

Another cause of distraction is a common one in American student life, and exists just because of his abundance of creature comforts. This is the proneness of the student, or possibly of his well-meaning but misguided mother or sisters, to make his room attractive by means of pictures, by souvenirs on the walls and tables, by bric-à-brac of various kinds scattered about. When to this are added the various mementos of jubilant class-dinners, rushes, midnight raids on street signs, perhaps even a souvenir of a night in jail, need I say how these distract the student's attention from his book. One roving glance, and the family group reminds him of home, that class picture reminds him of his comrades, the flaming poster reminds him of the excitement of his freshman experiences, the policeman's club reminds him of the street row when on a sign-stealing expedition, etc. Need it be said, that, when this unfortunate wight is trying to study, he does not need to be reminded of these things as an aid to concentration, that souvenirs do not help him to keep his attention on his book, and that the more attractive his room is the more it distracts his attention. I do not confound attractiveness with comfort; the latter the student should have, the more the better, but the comforts should be real, unobtrusive ones.

I am simply protesting against that misguided custom which often regards students' rooms as olla podrida, museums of bric-à-brac, proper depositories of any and every object which can remind the student of the glorious life he is leading—and which are all common enemies, to a smaller or greater degree, to that concentration of mind which he most needs, as a student, to cultivate and to possess.

However, the room must have something in it, the walls should not be those of a bare attic, let us admit, and therefore, what is the student to do, when studying? On this head, we have two suggestions to make, which have been tried and found effective. First, when studying by daylight, have the table near the window, so that the light is sideways, and one's back is partly towards the "attractive" room. If the window gives on a, busy street, have the lower half covered by a translucent curtain, to keep the attention from being distracted by happenings outside. If the window looks out on a quiet neighborhood, or especially on a country scene, the curtain is unnecessary. The best situation is where there is a rather extensive view from the window, for then the student can from time to time rest his eyes, wearied by their short focus on the book, by letting them focus on the distance, the farther away the better, without there being any moving factors in the scene to particularly claim attention. Under these circumstances, his eyes being rested, but his attention not caught, the student's mind will often go back naturally to what he is studying, and will reflect on the points just learned. Given such a window, with such a view, and absence of unnecessary noise, and the student should do good work in daylight.

At night the conditions are very different. Artificial light must be used, and of what kind and how placed is all-important. The writer may have had limited experience in some of these regards, but the following are the results of his observation, and are given for what they are worth:

First, the illumination should not be general. The only matters concerned are the student and the book, and as the student will get his illumination from the book, it is only the proper lighting of the latter which is to be considered. A lighting scheme which lights the whole room is worse than useless, it is undesirable. The better the book is lighted and the more the rest of the room is in comparative darkness, the easier it is for the student to keep his attention fixed on the book and the less is he distracted by seeing the other things in the room. Is it not an old trick of the artist, to focus and hold the attention by a brilliantly-colored "center" (such as the child's face in Correggio's "Holy Night"), in the midst of an obscure back-ground? Therefore, applying common sense as well as artistic perception, illuminate the book to be studied as much as is necessary, and the rest of the room as little as is necessary. By so doing, concentration on the book is wonderfully assisted.

Second, place the light in front and preferably to the left. We are not here speaking of how to sit in an easy chair and read a novel most comfortably, with the light coming over one's shoulder; but we speak of the student with a book which needs mastering, probably with pencil in hand and a pad of paper alongside. Such requires the student sitting squarely at a table, with his paper and pencil ready for action. In this case, the light should be close, not over three feet away from the book, better at half that distance, so that practically only a small circle is illuminated, with the book nearly in its center. If placed directly in front, the glaze on the paper may easily interfere with reading; and if writing (with the right hand), placing the lamp to the right will be likewise annoying because of the reflection from the glaze. The best position is for the light to be to the left a few inches, as far forward as the top of the book or paper, and no higher than the eyes. A green shade over the light, enamel-white inside, is the best. A white shade lights up the room in general too much, and necessitates the student wearing a green eye-shade on his "noble brow." The latter is uncomfortable, and quite unnecessary if put over the light instead of over his eyes.

Third, a student oil-lamp gives the most satisfactory illumination, if kept in good order. The wick should be kept free from excrescences, so that it always gives its proper, steady, mellow, yellow light. The ordinary gas burner nickers too much, the electric light is steadier but can not be regulated, the Welsbach-mantle light is too brilliant if turned on full and too variable if turned down.

Fourth—and most important of all—turn the light down low, and then turn it down some more! Given the right kind of light, the student lamp, one third to one half its full illuminating power, is all that is necessary or desirable. The reason is highly important, for reading easily and for the welfare of the eyes, and it is this: We see the print by contrast of nearly black against nearly white; with no illumination there is no contrast; as the illumination increases the contrast becomes better and reading is easier. At a certain point, the contrast is greatest and reading is easiest. But it is an entirely erroneous idea that the greater the illumination the greater the ease of reading. Hold the page directly in the sunlight; can you read it easier? There is a certain amount of illumination at which the contrast of print against paper is a maximum and where reading is easiest, with least fatigue to the eyes. This point varies for different-sized prints, for different inks, for differently surfaced papers and for different tints of papers. The point can be readily and easily determined in a fraction of a minute, in any particular case, by any one wishing to find it, by simply turning the light slowly up, keeping the eyes on the book, and noting the least light at which the print is clearly seen and read without sensible effort. This is the point at which you can read that book the longest without strain or fatigue; it will usually be found at about one half or less of the illumination ordinarily used. (I will not speak of the saving in "midnight" oil thereby attained; the saving in "eyes" is more important.) One can often read and study for hours with this light, whereas a brighter light would really make reading more difficult and tire out the eyes in a fraction of the time.

The effect of heeding and using the above principle is that eye-fatigue is minimized and thus study is done with less distraction from this cause. The point explained is the point of maximum comfort, and, therefore, of maximum efficiency. With only the book illuminated, and lighted just to the point of maximum comfort, all other objects in the room in semi-darkness, and the student anxious to study, let us leave him to himself, to see what he can make out of the situation.