This post was originally published on November 2, 2019 on Psychology in Action.
“Find a quiet place to study and then do all of your studying in that place” is common advice to students from educators across the country (e.g., Bennett, 2015; Chadron State College, n.d.; Santa Monica College, 2017). Some go as far to suggest that students study in the same place, at the same time of day, every day (Rasmussen, 2019). Does this common advice benefit students’ learning? Well, it depends on whether the exam is in the same place you’ve studied or a new place because memory can be context-dependent. Context-dependent memory is the phenomenon that recall of information is enhanced when the context present at encoding (i.e. study) and retrieval (i.e. test) are the same. Some common experiences that are related to context-dependent memory are the sudden “flood” of memories from your childhood that may come back when visiting home for the holidays or forgetting a few key items while shopping at the grocery store, only to suddenly remember them when you get home and walk into your kitchen.
Context can be environmental, or external, such as the characteristics of the room, the time of day, and whether it is sunny or overcast outside. In a famous study by Godden and Baddeley (1975), scuba divers studied a list of words either underwater or on land. They were then tested either underwater or on land such that some scuba divers’ contexts were matched (i.e. studied on land and tested on land) and some were mismatched (i.e. studied on land and tested underwater). Divers whose study and test contexts matched performed better than divers whose study and test contexts were mismatched. The importance of these results is highlighted by the original motivation of the study—scuba diving instructors often complained that scuba divers who had been thoroughly instructed in important safety procedures (on land) would forget these procedures once they were in the water, increasing the likelihood of injury or death. This study had important implications for how to train scuba divers in the future—if they need to know the information in the water, then they should actually learn while underwater!
Contexts can also be internal, and the enhanced learning when internal states between study and test are matched is referred to as state-dependent learning. Weingartner, Adefris, Eich, and Murphy (1976) had participants study a list of words either sober or after a moderate number of alcoholic drinks. Participants then took a delayed test either sober or while intoxicated so that some participants had matched internal states (i.e. level of intoxication) between study and test and others had mismatched internal states (i.e. study intoxicated but test sober). Results followed a similar pattern to the scuba-diving study, with participants whose internal states were matched exhibiting better recall of the words than participants whose internal states were mismatched. However, it should be noted for all the college students reading this post that those who studied sober and tested sober did better than those who studied intoxicated and tested intoxicated. In other words, matching internal states benefits learning compared to mismatched internal states, but alcohol tends to have a negative effect on memory overall.
Though these are two rather extreme manipulations of context, more subtle manipulations (such as studying and testing in the same or a different room) have found a benefit of matched learning and test contexts (e.g., McDaniel, Anderson, Einstein, & O’Halloran, 1989; Smith, 1979). But why does there seem to be a benefit of context matching? When you learn information, you focus on the information you are trying to learn. Yet, you also incidentally, or unintentionally, encode cues (stimuli around you) in the environment or in your internal state. These cues can then help support later recall of that information if they happen to be present at test. These cues can act as “hints” to help you remember the information you learned, and this can occur even if you don’t consciously realize that you are relying on these cues. When learning and testing occur in the same context, it is likely that there are more cues present to support recall of information than when in a new context (for a review, see Smith & Vela, 2001).
Based on this research, should students do all of their studying in the same place? If the test is going to occur in that exact place, then the answer may actually be yes. However, outside of an online or correspondence course, it is highly unlikely that a student’s test will occur at the exact same place they did all of their studying. Most students must take their exams in a lecture hall, and those learning a new procedure or skill at work may need to apply it in a variety of locations. Further, it is likely that you may need to recall that information in the future in a context very different from its initial learning context. For example, many science courses build on one another (i.e. Organic Chemistry I, II, and III) and skills learned in class may be needed in the workforce—it is concerning to imagine what may happen if a medical student could not remember how to properly insert an IV after rotating to a new hospital. For most of the important information we learn in our daily lives, we will ultimately need to apply or remember it in different contexts, whether that is when we are in a different mood, an alternate location, or even just at a different point in time (referred to by researchers as temporal context).
What then should people due to enhance the recall of information in a context dissimilar to its study context? Employ context variation. Context variation is when you learn information in multiple contexts before being tested in a new context. For example, imagine learning some content in your usual lecture hall, studying that information with friends at your favorite coffee shop, and then reviewing the material at the library before taking your exam. In this case, not only are you learning this material in several different contexts, these contexts are also distinct and differ on many characteristics (i.e. wall color, building location, number of people present, temperature, light level, etc.).
In a classic study by Smith, Glenberg, and Bjork (1978), participants studied a word list in one of two locations: Context P, a room in an old building with a large blackboard, no windows, and glass cabinets, or Context M, a tiny room within the animal laboratories that had empty rat cages in the corner. In Context P, participants were shown the words on the projector, and in Context M they were presented with the word audially using a tape recorder. Additionally, in Context M the experimenter wore lumberjack style clothing and in Context P he wore a suit and tie. In fact, though the experimenter was the same person in all sessions, he reportedly looked so different that some participants failed to recognize that they had seen him before when they returned for the second session. After initial study of the word list, participants returned three hours later to either the same location or a different location to restudy the word list. The conditions were labeled PP, PM, MP, and MM, with PP and MM being the unvaried learning context conditions and MP and PM being the varied learning context conditions. Three hours after the second session, participants returned for a third and final session in a neutral location that was dissimilar to the previous contexts and were asked to recall the word list. Participants who studied in varied contexts recalled about 20% more words than those who studied in the same context during both sessions. That’s a difference of two letter grades!
Why might context variation benefit learning when testing occurs in a new place? Well, think back to environmental cues. When testing and learning occur in the same place it is highly likely that many of those cues would be present at test to promote recall of information. However, that isn’t guaranteed when testing occurs in a new, dissimilar location. In these cases, it is better to have encoded as many different environmental cues as possible to increase the likelihood that at least a few of these cues, which support memory, will be present at test. With enough study across varied locations, learning may even become decontextualized—meaning it is so well-learned that the context you are retrieving the information in may not matter. Information such as your current address or the name of your best friend is likely so well-learned and utilized in such a variety of contexts that it no longer is “tied” to one context and is almost always easily retrieved.
Like much advice about learning, the recommendation to do all your studying in one place is not universally true or false. Instead, whether following this advice will enhance your learning largely depends on if your study and test contexts are likely to be the same or different, and if you want to be able to retrieve that information in later situations. Most individuals would likely benefit from context variation when learning, as most people need to apply learned knowledge in many different contexts.
Bennett, S. R. (2015). Study skills & test taking strategies: Tools for student success. Retrieved from https://www.eta-i.org/ppt/2015_study_skills__test_taking_strategies.ppt
Chadron State College. (n.d.) Ten study methods that work. Retrieved from http://www.csc.edu/learningcenter/study/studymethods.csc
Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. Br. J. Psychol., 66(3), 325-331.
McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, C., Einstein, G. O., & O’Halloran, C. M. (1989). Modulation of environmental reinstatement effects through encoding strategies. The American Journal of Psychology, 102(4), 523-548.
Rasmussen, H. (2019, May 24). Best ways to study for economics exams. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-study-for-your-economics-exam-1146330
Santa Monica College. (2017, June). Compensatory strategies. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from http://www.smc.edu/StudentServices/DisabilityResources/Documents/LD%20Program/Compensatory%20strats.pdf
Smith, S. M. (1979). Remembering in and out of context. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5(5), 460-471.
Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6(4), 342-353.
Weingartner, H., Adefris, W., Eich, J. E., & Murphy, D. L. (1976). Encoding-imagery specificity in alcohol state-dependent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 2(1), 83-87.