Studying in bed not bad, survey shows

WASHINGTON — Forty years ago, Robert Gifford, a senior at the University of California at Davis, spent a few weeks banging on dorm doors and asking occupants whether they were studying.

Gifford didn’t want to party; he just wanted to see whether the students were working at their desks or on their beds. Then he wanted to compare the grade-point averages of the erect to the supine.

Gifford’s little experiment was a rare serious effort to answer a question that erupts in millions of households and dorms across the nation: Will I do better if I study in an uncomfortable position?

The answer certainly is yes if you go by published study guides and the venerable experts who write them.

“You need a chair that’s not real comfortable, and you certainly don’t want to be studying on your bed,” said Sherrie Nist-Olejnik, a recent retiree from the University of Georgia at Athens, where she directed or delivered various “learning to learn” efforts for 24 years.

“There’s not a lot written about it, but if you ask students about studying on their beds, they laugh and tell you they fall asleep,” said Nist-Olejnik, author of a popular study guide called College Rules!

Indeed, Emily Kopilow, 21, a junior at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., did laugh at studying in bed — but she also spurned the uncomfortable chair idea. “If you’re uncomfortable,” she said, “you’ll focus on your body and your discomfort, not what you’re supposed to be reading about.”

Cultural historian Edward Tenner, author most recently of Our Own Devices, a book about technology’s influence on behavior, agreed. He suspects that the uncomfortable chair theory is rooted in the good-posture movement that flourished between World Wars I and II. It asserted a connection between sitting straight and straight thinking.

Tenner said he also was reminded of the how-to-succeed advice of 19th-century author John Todd. In his best-seller, titled Index Rerum, Todd wrote these stern words: “Standing is undoubtedly the best method of study.”

So what did Gifford discover in his eight-college study habit survey titled “The Bed or the Desk?”

“No difference between them” when it came to GPA, Gifford and his psychology department mentor, Robert Sommer, wrote in the May 1968 issue of Personnel and Guidance Journal. It’s the only widely known serious examination of the bed-desk question.

Gifford and Sommer found that of the above-average scholars surveyed, half studied at their desks and half studied on their beds. Among the below-average students, 47 percent studied abed and 53 percent studied at their desks.

Of the 86 students with GPAs of 3.0 or better, 53 percent worked at their desks; the rest, on their beds. Among the 18 students with GPAs of 2.0 or under, two-thirds worked at their desks.

“There is nothing in these data to support recommendations for studying in a straight-backed chair at a desk,” the researchers concluded.

Gifford and Sommer, who are well-known environmental psychologists, often advise on the design of libraries, classrooms and study environments. They recommend comfortable furniture.

They suggest that students work wherever it comes naturally.

Even beds are sometimes just fine.