People who write study guides know what's good for you. "You need a chair that's not real comfortable and you certainly don't want to be studying on your bed," says Sherrie Nist-Olejnik. But the only serious examination of studying conditions found no difference in the grade point averages of students who studied sitting at their desks or on their beds.
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's certainly 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.
And how does Nist-Olejnik know beds are bad for scholars? "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 abed — 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."
Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who's studied advice manuals, acknowledged that lots of college reading can put students to sleep. But he saw something puritanical in both the straight chair recommendation and the aversion to doing anything involving a bed other than sleeping in it.
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.
The 1968 study's findings were based on afternoon and evening visits with 331 students at three universities, four state colleges and one junior college. Researchers discarded results for students who were studying on floors, couches or elsewhere.
Gifford and Sommer, who are well-known environmental psychologists, often advise on the design of libraries, classrooms and study environments. They recommend comfortable furniture.
"Desks are really confining, and cubicles are worse than desks," Sommer said.
They suggest that students work wherever it comes naturally.
Even beds are sometimes just fine.
In his book "Warm and Snug: The History of the Bed," author Lawrence Wright notes that the Roman statesman Cicero and lyric poet Horace; the English poets John Milton and Alexander Pope; essayists Jonathan Swift and Voltaire; novelists Anthony Trollope, Marcel Proust, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson — not to mention English statesman Winston Churchill — all had one thing in common: They wrote in bed.
Even some traditionalists are growing more flexible.
Charles Camp, for example, who teaches civil engineering to freshmen at the University of Memphis, offers stern advice on the school's Web site. ("Sit upright; if you're too relaxed your mind will be too slow," etc.)
Camp borrowed the proscriptions from a now-retired engineering professor "a couple of years ago, because they made sense to me, for the most part," he said in an interview.
"But they don't seem to apply to the newer generation of students," Camp added. "They study under trees, in their beds, listening to iPods, whatever. You'll see them sitting together at a table, two talking about what they did last night, a third on his cell, and a guy sitting next to them doing his homework.
"Studying just seems to happen wherever they're comfortable," Camp said, sounding amazed and a little liberated.