The study space debate: Focus versus balance

Finding your rhythm at university is partly about deciding where to study. Some people prefer to log their hours between bookshelves, others between cups of coffee. We delve in to the pros and cons of each approach


Eden Grosz

10/23/20237 min read

In achieving academic success, the right study environment is crucial. While the college library has long been held as the gold standard for focused learning due to its tranquil environment and vast resources, students today often gravitates to alternative spaces. Coffee shops, with their mix of sensory stimulation and social buzz, have gained traction among students - and it's worth noting that some people simply prefer to study in their room.

This shift in preference from libraries to coffee shops isn't merely about location but highlights evolving student priorities in academic approaches. Libraries, with their quietness and their abundance of physical books, contrast starkly to the mixed and more laid back setting of the coffee shop, teeming with life and conversation. This divergence spotlights the broader debate on individual learning styles and what truly enhances productivity.

The library: Physical books and focus

College libraries remain a cornerstone for those prioritizing academic excellence. Their appeal goes beyond mere convenience, in that they serve as hubs desdicated to the student learning experience.

Optimal concentration: In a world full of distractions, a library's purposeful design can be a haven. It isn’t just about quietness; it's the entire ambiance. Unlike other spaces—be it the noise of a dorm or the hum of a cafe—a library's environment is tailor-made for study. In a good library, distractions are kept outside the walls, letting students dive deep into their work and projects

Resource goldmine: Because they cater to academics and learning, libraries can offer up a world of knowledge. An array of materials, from early editions of old and influential books, to textbooks and works that can't be found online, are just a few paces away if you need support in your work. This curated wealth of literature is particularly useful when you're doing a research project, need to read around a topic outside a reading list, or are studying things pre-2000.

Guidance at hand: It's not just about having resources, but knowing how to navigate them. Librarians, more than just custodians of books, are seasoned navigators of the vast sea of information. Their expertise can streamline students' research processes, pinpointing relevant materials and databases that might otherwise be overlooked.

Balance of solitude and teamwork: Some libraries can be highly versatile. Large or well-planned college libraries also recognise the importance of group work by accommodating spaces for discussion and collaboration. These dedicated spaces enable brainstorming, critical reflection and sharing of your ideas, and a good venue for hosting group projects, ensuring students have the best of both worlds.

Inspiring and beautiful design: The stunning architecture of many college libraries encapsulate academic gravitas. This is particularly true for historic and wealthy universities like Oxbridge or the Ivy League, whose libraries are often modelled on cathedrals. Surrounded by such an environment and like-minded peers, students often find an intrinsic motivation boost. It’s an atmosphere that doesn't just facilitate learning but actively encourages it, by creating a feeling of striving for something great.

Flexible timing: Adapting to students' varied rhythms, especially during peak academic periods, many libraries have extended operational hours, and certain ones are even open 24/7. For some, nighttime brings clarity, and the library's flexibility ensures that whenever you need a space for focused work, a conducive environment is easily accessible.

In summation, an on-campus library delivers a whole host of benefits. It's an academic sanctuary, and great libraries are experty crafted to nurture intellectual growth, by creating a place where you can enhance skill sets, and deepen understanding. Whether one seeks solitary reflection or vibrant collaboration, for some a college library is unmatched in providing the ideal venue for pursuing academic brilliance.

Coffee Shops: balance, background noise, and multisensory stimulation

Studying in coffee shops and other similarly cozy venues has become increasingly popular among students. This is in part simply due to the growth of coffee shops over time - you can find one now on almost every High Street in the UK. This ubiquity means they are easy and convenient to pop into, whenver you have the time. Compared to the boundaries and traditionalism of a library, coffee shop work also melds comfort with studying.

A shift in ambiance: Libraries, for all their merits, often project an air of formality. Contrastingly, coffee shops exude warmth—comfy sofas, varied seating, the hum of conversations—which many find welcoming. This informal setting can alleviate the anxiety of rigorous academic endeavors, especially given that some people are highly sensitive to light and ambience when it comes to setting their mood. Coffee shops, which bustle with diverse patrons—from those engrossed in conversations to those immersed in unknown productive tasks —provide a more human-centered study environment. This can be an antidote to the isolation a student might feel in the quiet corners of a library.

Hooked up to the caffeine drip: The mere aroma of freshly brewed coffee can rejuvenate your senses, if you're on your way to a coffee addiction like me. During the taxing periods of academia, many students lean on caffeine to provide them with a jolt of focus. Coffee shops ensure that this essential study aid is just an order away, giving you motivation and mental stamina for the hardest of tasks.

The magic of ambient noise: Surprisingly, the very aspect some view as a disturbance—background noise—acts as a stimulant for many. This ambient murmur, a melange of casual conversations and the clinking of coffee mugs, can help students zone in on their work. There is, after all, such a thing as "too quiet". The comforting mien of this eclectic sound mixture has even spurred the creation of playlists and YouTube video that mimic this coffee shop ambiance, testifying to its efficacy.

Fresh scenery for your senses: The monochromatic world of libraries can sometimes give you a sense of stagnation. Coffee shops, in contrast, tend to be more vibrant. The unique aesthetics and ever-changing mix of clientele keep things fresh. A dynamic environment like this can jumpstart creativity and breathe life into long and otherwise drawn-out study sessions.

Bridging the gap between solitude and society: Libraries have their hush-hush rules, but coffee shops strike a balance. Occasional friendly banter, a quick chat with a barista, or shared smiles with strangers (!) can weave small yet necessary breaks into intense study schedules, staving off feelings of isolation. It's also a great place to meet a friend, when you need a break.

Balance and respite: The allure of coffee shops lies in their ability to harmonize the rigors of academic pursuit with moments of rest. Because coffee shops are mixed spaces, the venue itself becomes an instrument of balance, allowing students to oscillate between focused study and moments of relaxation, fostering a healthier and more holistic approach to learning.

In essence, while libraries will always hold an important place in academia, coffee shops and similarly relaxed environments present a compelling blend of comfort and concentration, catering to the evolving needs of today's learners.

Quantifying the alternatives: a wide gamut beyond

Libraries and coffee shops are the most common choices, but there are plenty of alternative study spaces out there. Some, such as co-working spaces, may only be available in large metropolitan cities, but combine the benefits of both coffee shops and libraries. Others, like cultural spaces, will appeal more to humanities students. Outdoor spaces, on the other hand, are largely seasonal, and more suited to the Northern hemisphere than the tropics. Studying at home, finally, remains a popular choice for some out of sheer convenience, but can also make others recoil due to Covid-related trauma. Here are the options in more detail:

Co-working spaces: Originally designed for freelancers and entrepreneurs, co-working spaces are now appealing to students. According to Deskmag's annual survey, 1.7 million people worked in around 19,000 co-working spaces worldwide by 2019 (Deskmag, 2019). What makes them attractive? Their blend of professional yet relaxed ambiance, fast internet, and networking opportunities. They embody a hybrid of structure and flexibility that seems to resonate with today's learners. Plus, they provide access to a community of diverse professionals, which can be beneficial for networking and interdisciplinary projects.

Cultural spaces: Museums, art galleries, and cultural centers aren't just for sightseeing anymore. A report by the American Alliance of Museums highlighted that museum attendance has been on the rise, with students often seeking the quiet and inspiration they offer for academic tasks (AAM, 2018). The appeal? These spaces offer an ambiance rich in history and creativity, fostering a stimulating environment that can elevate the research or study experience.

Outdoor spaces: The benefits of outdoor learning have been long championed. A study from the University of Illinois found that students who engage in learning activities in green settings have a 20% better attention span (University of Illinois, 2010). Parks, botanical gardens, and university green spaces provide not just fresh air, but a change of scenery that can revitalize the mind, making them ideal for reading or brainstorming sessions.

Studying at home: With the rise of online education and remote work, more students are recognizing the perks of curating their study environment at home. A survey from Educause Review revealed that 70% of students feel they learn best when they have some time to study at home (Educause Review, 2020). This space, when optimized with proper lighting, ergonomics, and noise control, offers unmatched personalization. Plus, there's the added advantage of zero commute, which can save precious study time.

Conclusion? Assess your options

Choosing the perfect study space—a decision that often oscillates between college libraries and coffee shops—can significantly impact a student's learning experience. While libraries promise a structured, resource-rich environment, coffee shops entice with their ambient settings and multisensory appeal. Yet, we shouldn't overlook emerging options like co-working venues, cultural spaces, and even the comfort of one's home. The most effective space varies widely, contingent on the student's personality, the specifics of their tasks, and available options. Recognizing and selecting the environment that best complements one's learning style is pivotal for academic achievement.

How Oxbridge Fast Track can elevate your academic goals: While the environment lays the foundation, maximizing one's study potential requires targeted expertise. Oxbridge Fast Track provides tailored tutoring solutions to bolster any study setting, be it a bustling coffee shop or a quiet library corner. With their dedicated approach, students gain the tools to optimize their learning, regardless of where they choose to hit the books.