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My 13 year old son is scheduled to take Algebra I next year, and this amounts to skipping one year of math. To prepare for that he has been leaning the material that he is skipping over the summer. I would like you to settle a debate my son is having with me.

Do you recommend that people sit at a desk or table and sit on a chair designed for a desk or table when using a laptop computer to study or take a test? Would it be just as good if they have the laptop on their lap while sitting in a rocking chair?

Also, would listening to music while studying or taking tests cause them to not learn the subject as well? Please let me know if you are a teacher, because I am looking for replies from people with experience in education.

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    $\begingroup$ How would an answer from this site settle the debate? You underestimate the power of 13 year olds to argue. The answer is essentially obvious, but teenagers can refuse to recognize the obvious. $\endgroup$ – John Coleman Jul 28 '16 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site. A 13-year old who is doing work over the summer is fairly motivated and independent. He probably doesn't want input from his parents on how to best study. Furthermore effects of music while studying definitely vary by student. The best way to settle the debate would be to try a chapter or topic each way and see how he does on the assessment. You can't argue with results. $\endgroup$ – Amy B Jul 28 '16 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ Studying math ordinarily involves not only reading but also writing, for example doing scratch work to verify what one is reading or to solve problems. If, as is usually the case, that writing is to be done on paper, then rocking chairs would seem rather awkward. When, on the other hand, only reading is involved, then it's a matter of the individual's temperament and metabolism. Rocking chairs work fine for some people; other people daydream or fall asleep. $\endgroup$ – Andreas Blass Jul 28 '16 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ Finding the ideal balance for a work setting is a lifelong endeavor; all permutations suggested here for a self-motivated 13 year old seem good to me. For the music-listening: there is some research that having moderate noise improves "creativity" by certain measures (e.g.) but I would not generalize this finding to preparing, in particular, for Algebra I. There are also findings around walking as helpful for thinking; perhaps these transfer to chair-rocking... But: I say, defer to the child. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Jul 28 '16 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ It is a mistake to assume the same study method (whatever it is) is best for everyone. $\endgroup$ – Gerald Edgar Jul 30 '16 at 0:26
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(I'd like to preface this answer by saying that I'm not sure this is an argument that is either winnable against a 13-year-old or even worthwhile having. As others have already stated in comments and answers, the fact that he's motivated enough to work on mathematics on his own during the summer, is probably such a commendable venture for a student of this age, that you let him do so in whatever position he feels most comfortable.)

But I digress:

Little research concerning physical ergonomics of notebook computer use has been conducted, so recommendations for use are currently limited and not strongly supported by objective evidence. (Found in the Abstract of “Effects of notebook computer configuration and task on user biomechanics, productivity, and comfort,” International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 30 (2002) pp 7-31)

Note that this article is already over a decade old, but a cursory search has yet to surface more relevant research. I'd be at least a little interested to know if there has been more research on the topic in general.

As it pertains to music listening:

Some studies supporting this technique have shown that background music promotes cognitive performance while other studies have shown that listening to music while engaged in complex cognitive tasks can impair performance. (Found in the Abstract of "The Impact of Listening to Music on Cognitive Performance" Inquiries Journal, 2013, VOL. 5 NO. 09)

The jury seems to still be out on this as well. Neither of these refers specifically to mathematics study, but I have a hunch that few, if any, such specific studies exist. (Though I will gladly eat crow if someone can prove me wrong.)

My own opinion as an educator and former (reasonably successful) student, is to find whatever comfortable position works best for the individual. I used to do my homework in High School while sitting on the floor and spreading out on the coffee table. Others might prefer laying down, working at a desk, or in a rocking chair. I don't think I'd force anyone to alter a style they were comfortable with if they were already showing success. Offering up suggestions to add to or alter his style might be the best you can hope for.

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Speaking as someone who didn't start off on the right foot with math in high school or even college, but who went on to successfully complete a PhD in mathematics and then taught at university for while, I would ask you to consider what's at stake.

It's easy to get caught up in short term goals and a doom and gloom story-line about how not getting into algebra can mean missed opportunities with AP courses in high school, perhaps that might mean not getting into the best college, etc. But that's all speculation. And, I'm not sure that that's the best lesson for your son to be learning now.

If skipping a year of math and studying over the summer is his idea, then I would suggest a bit of a hands-off approach. Perhaps sit down and work out what he wants to achieve. Work out goals. A goal of skipping a year of math is not the best goal. Learning to be self motivated, how to manage time, how to approach learning a subject outside of the structure of the classroom,... these are goals that translate into skills that will help him move forward---not just in mathematics, but in other areas of study too.

Consider the scenario where he studies as you believe he should. And let's say he does a pretty good job of it in what remains of the summer. He's still likely to struggle in Algebra I. Is that because he lacks background and is ill-prepared? Or, is that because algebra is new and novel and challenging? Who knows!

I would say let him study as he thinks works best for him (even if it makes you cringe or question whether he's getting anything out of it). Have him work out goals, and (very importantly) articulate those goals he wants reach by the end of the summer. Just saying, "I want to spend an hour every day working on mathematics" is a big deal. And if he can come close to achieving, I believe it will pay off in the long run. How much math he actually learned is irrelevant. He will struggle one of these days in mathematics: it might be in Algebra I, it might not be until he takes a 400 level college course in real analysis. But the investment of starting young and learning to work toward a goal will be invaluable. He will know that, when he puts his mind to it, he can work independently and achieve something. And the key here is the independence. Let him discover what he can do, and encourage him as you see him succeed (even the success seems to have little to do with gaining mathematical knowledge).

Let's say he only manages to put in a half hour every week until school begins, this can still be viewed as a success. When he returns to school and he struggles in algebra I, don't say, "now if only you had put in a little more effort this summer then this wouldn't be so bad." You don't know that. Instead say, "hey remember how you set those goals this past summer and you put your mind to it and studied on your own? You can do that now too." Let him be the one who says, "but I didn't do much, I only put in a half hour each week." Just respond, "yes, that's true. But still, you still managed to put something in."

Learning that he can motivate himself enough to study on his own, even if not to the full extent hoped for, will help him as he moves forward and must face far greater challenges.

Remember, he's only 13 years old. He still discovering who he is and what he is capable of.

So, I may not have settled your debate (or maybe I have), but I would say your debate isn't all that important. Let him learn how best he learns.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your feedback. I am not trying to ensure that my son gets into a better college, or anything like that. Instead, I want him to take a math class that is not too easy. Last September my son said he wanted to be in accelerated math and English classes because there are too many disruptive kids in the classes he has. Last year he consistently had a 95% or better in math. We don't want him to get in over his head, so we are having move up in math, but not English. I myself was bored with high school math, because I was not placed with advanced students. $\endgroup$ – Ted Ersek Jul 30 '16 at 0:33
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You'll find plenty of research mathematicians curled up with their laptop in their lap (although not so many in rocking chairs, I think). Paul Erdos famously asserted that drugs helped his maths (and he was pretty good at it).

Doing maths while listening to music might not be as productive as doing maths not listening to music, but it's more productive than not doing maths at all.

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