With extracurriculars, academics and a social life to maintain, goal-oriented students have to squeeze time from their hectic schedules to get homework done. The result? Lots of studying, writing and reading happens while lying or lounging in bed. Though many parents insist children study only at a desk, they may be surprised to hear what experts think about where and when it’s best to review and learn. We gathered informed opinions from experts in education psychology, sleep medicine and ergonomics.
Doing the Homework
As a debate about homework escalates nationwide, a perhaps less-discussed issue is where this home-studying takes place. Among those who recognize that much of it happens in bed are industrial engineers and furniture designers. Over the years they have come up with across-the-bed tables that angle laptops for proper typing, reading pillows that cradle the neck, back and arms, even hard-sided lap pillows for resting a laptop on.
These can all help bed-studiers be more comfortable. However, Atul Malhotra, a physician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, with a focus on sleep medicine, notes: “Lying down or sitting upright doesn’t impact your brain function—your posture doesn’t matter.”
The only widely known study specifically on students doing homework in bed versus at a desk was published in May 1968. Of the 100 or so college students they surveyed—admittedly at a time when studying was quite different than the screen-based work now—the researchers at the University of California, Davis, found no difference in grade-point average between those who worked at their desk and those who studied in bed.
“The assumption that there is a single type of study environment optimal for all students appears unwarranted,” the authors concluded.
One concern is that being cozy in bed typically brings on sleepiness, which may compromise a student’s ability to retain information, says Harris Cooper, a social psychologist with a specialty in education at Duke University. But he adds that figuring out how you learn and study most effectively at a young age isn’t a bad thing.
“If they are getting their work done and it is of quality, then knowing what environments work for them will prepare them to be lifelong learners in various locations,” Dr. Cooper says. The professor of psychology and neuroscience suggests parents and students track progress over time to see if they are, indeed, producing as good work in bed as at a desk.
Losing the Last Page
When someone reads a book just before falling asleep, and puts the bookmark on page 89, it’s common not to recall in the morning what happened on page 88, Dr. Malhotra says.
“That which happened right before you sleep doesn’t register, so many people have to re-read page 88—but they will remember page 87,” he says. He doesn’t take issue with one of his daughters who studies in bed with music on. But he suggests that anyone who does homework on the comforter at night go back a few pages or at least 10 minutes’ worth of work in the morning and redo and review it. Also, if you have to read and retain something important, don’t read it just before sleeping, as the few minutes just before sleep aren’t optimal for memory retention.
“Read it, then brush your teeth, then go to sleep,” he says. He also doesn’t mind a little morning lie-in coupled with studying. “You’re often free from distractions in bed in the morning, before the day’s chaos begins,” he says. If you find comfort in bed when the sun comes up, that might be a good opportunity to learn and retain new information.
Getting to Neutral
Standing with arms relaxed at your side is considered the “neutral” posture, with no stress put on any particular part of your body, says ergonomics specialist Janice Fletcher at UC San Diego Health, an academic medical center.
She makes sure people get close to neutral while working at their desks, adjusting keyboards so that the elbows are slightly wider than at right angles, and wrists are either straight or slightly bent downward, “never flexed in the ‘tell it to the hand’ position,” she says. She also places monitors so the neck is neither flexed nor extended. Perhaps surprisingly, the second-most neutral posture is lying in bed flat on your back, though not much studying can be accomplished in that position, she admits.
Ms. Fletcher is fine with people studying in bed, though she suggests that rather than just plopping onto a mattress to do homework, students should plan a little.
The best posture for reading in bed, she says, is sitting up with your back against the headboard and pillows under your arms to raise the reading material to eye level.
“That way you don’t have to bend your neck to view the book or device,” she says. Find a flat surface for writing or supporting a computer on your lap, and use a soft light to prevent a glare that may harm the eyes. For homework involving lots of paper and books, a desk might be a better choice, but bed-studying can be done effectively. “Make yourself as neutral as possible” by sitting similarly to the way you would if you were at a desk, with the help of cushioning, she says.
“If you’re at neutral, you’re more comfortable,” Ms. Fletcher says, “and I would guess you’d be less distracted because you wouldn’t be thinking about your discomfort.”