Can Students Learn While They are Tuned in to Music?

Can Students Learn While They are Tuned in to Music?

“Can we listen to our music?” How many times have we all heard this request after giving students a task to complete independently? How many times must I tell them “No” for them to believe me? Apparently they have not heard it enough; my “No” is always followed up with ,“But Mr. ________ lets us or Ms. ___________ always says it is okay.” This request has only increased as BYOD has taken over our school, and students have their devices in hand as they enter and exit the classroom or walk down the hall.

How many times have I walked down a high school hallway and noticed multiple students working independently in different classrooms, all with ear buds firmly in place? Is it that all these students are slackers? Are all the teachers allowing them to listen to music too lazy or ineffective to get them to focus? I consider myself a professional with some knowledge about how children learn. Have I been letting my own generational bias affect how I think students learn best?

Thinking through some of these questions, I decided to generate some data in my Spanish 3 classes. As we began a new unit on food and cooking, I divided the targeted vocabulary into three lists, seven words each. I expected to prove that student performance decreased when they were allowed to choose the music they heard while studying. Instead, I was surprised to discover that student choice did not impair learning at all, and might have helped their memory later.

Day 1: I gave the first vocabulary list of seven words to all Spanish 3 classes. Students had ten minutes to study the vocabulary in any way they chose. Study time was immediately followed by a simple identification quiz: given the words in English, students needed to write the Spanish. No music was allowed in any class.

Guido's seventh period studying Day 1 (no music)

Day 2: I gave the second vocabulary list of seven words to all Spanish 3 classes. Again, students had ten minutes to study the vocabulary prior to the quiz. My first period class was the control group ,and they did not listen to music; however, I played Vivaldi quietly in the background during the other periods while students studied.

Day 3: I gave the third vocabulary list of seven words to all Spanish 3 classes with the same study time followed by a quiz. Once again, first period had no music but this time the other classes were allowed to listen to music they chose while they studied.

The results are interesting: the conclusion at first glance is that there is no significant difference in recall when students are listening to Vivaldi or listening to their choice in music. However, note the big increase in recall between the first and second vocabulary lists for ALL students including first period, which had no music at all. This jump leads me to believe that the music had limited impact; rather, knowing the expectations for the task increased the outcomes for all students.Day 3 results

Day 3 results

Day 5: After a brief break from vocabulary, I gave all class periods the twenty-one words in exactly the same format with no warning or study time to see who retained the vocabulary the best.

guido chart2 The results in the graph above are also interesting. First period, the class that learned the vocabulary with no music at all, did the worst on the overall quiz. Is it the presence of music that helped the recall of the other classes? Did periods six and seven do the best because they are more awake at the end of the day?

I ended up with more questions than I had at the beginning of this small exercise. What are the differences in the classes or individual students that affect memory? Did first period do the worst on the final quiz because I see them at the beginning of the day and they were not yet awake? Or did they not remember what they had studied for the same reason? Did periods six and seven do the best because they are more awake at the end of the day? Did the words somehow get easier to remember between the first and the third list? This was a low-level activity for the students and the vocabulary was not presented in context. How would the results change if the task required more problem-solving and critical thinking skills?

I am curious about the experiences of other teachers who have experimented with saying “yes” to student music during class. Have you noticed differences when students work independently with background music? It might be time to look at the ways our students interact with their devices more carefully; although they can be a powerful distraction, might they also be a great incentive?

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