Study in Different Places To Get Better Test Scores
Varying the place you study can dramatically boost long-term retention of material. And choosing several different places to study and rotating them hardly takes any effort. It's as simple as studying in a different room in your house, finding a new building on campus, or visiting a few different coffee shops or bookstores instead of the same one every time.
Research has shown for decades that people who study in different locations perform better on tests. Here are two studies to prove it:
University of Michigan Study
Students at the University of Michigan were divided into two groups. Both groups studied a list of 40 words and were given a test on the material at a later time. For the first study session, one of the groups studied the words in a particular room on campus, we’ll call it Room A. The other groups studied the words in a different room, we’ll call it Room B.
Three hours later, half of the students from each group studied the words in their same room for a second study session,, and half of the students from each group switched rooms.
Three hours after that all students were given a test on the list of words. Amazingly, the students who switched rooms for the second study session got an average of 21% more of the words correct on the test!
Texas A&M University Study
Students at Texas A&M University with no statistics background took an 8-hour condensed statistics course. The course consisted of four 90-minute video lectures followed by a practice problem set the students were given 30 minutes to work on. The students were divided into 4 groups:
- Group 1 completed the four lessons in 1 day, in the same classroom;
- Group 2 completed the four lessons in one day, in 4 different classrooms;
- Group 3 completed the four lessons over 4 days, in the same classroom;
- Group 4 completed the four lessons over 4 days, in 4 different classrooms.
After 5 days the students were given a battery of tests from simple memorization to working more complicated problems. And which group did the best? You guessed it: 4 days in 4 different classrooms.
The results showed primarily two things:
(1) learning the material over 4 days was better than learning the material in 1 day
(2) learning the material in different locations was better than learning the material in one location.
The first result is not surprising because spacing out learning is always more effective than cramming. However, the second result may be somewhat surprising since most people have been told that one of the keys to studying is to find a quiet place with no distractions, and then study in the same place every time. WRONG!
Why Does Studying in Different Places Work?
Varying the study environment provides your brain with more memory cues it can use to recall information. The more memory cues your brain has to retrieve the information, the more likely you'll be able to recall the information on the test, and the better your score.
Even though the place you study does not require any conscious work on your part, other than choosing the location in the first place, it automatically and unconsciously builds extra cues into your brain without you even knowing.
When you’re taking the test, your brain will not just try to recall the specific information you need for the answer, it will pull all of the information available to it, which includes memories of where you were studying when you learned the material.
If you study in the same place every time, the cues are the same for everything you study and your brain will tune them out. But if you studied a certain chapter at the library, another at the coffee shop, and another at home, then your brain will be more likely to retain and recall the information because it has distinct memory cues that will be used when you answer questions from those distinct chapters on the test.
Humans evolved to pair information with location in order to catalogue the world around them. If a person found a spot on a lake that had good fishing, it was beneficial to remember the location. If a person found a good patch of berries to eat, they'd likewise remember the location.
Human brains were hardwired to pair images and locations; the same circuits power our brains today. If a person studies photosynthesis in a classic novels section of the library, which happens to have a statue of Mark Twain, their brain will catalogue photosynthesis along with that statue of Mark Twain. Then when they encounter questions about photosynthesis on the test, their brain will pull the Mark Twain cue to help recall what they learned about photosynthesis during that study session. Cool, huh?
So here's what to do
1. Walk into a random building and look around for a suitable place to study.
Of course I’m referring primarily to college campuses here – don’t try to walk into an FBI office and be like “Hey, what’s up, just looking for a new place to study.” But it could also be local libraries, coffee shops, or even outdoor parks. Of course, be sure to balance a novel location with suitability for studying. Don’t want study in a place that has lots of distractions, loud noise, or people, unless you have the ability to tune them out.
Generally, a relatively quiet place with a white noise background is best. For me, complete silence doesn’t work well - I much prefer a coffee shop with noise. However, as soon as you can start making out conversations, or hear distinct words or lyrics from a radio or TV, they can detract from your focus on studying.
2. Choose places that have the most cues - visual, sound, and smell.
More cues will help your brain retain and retrieve information better. If you study at a big college library, most of the library is probably the same: stacks of similar looking books with similar study desks scattered throughout. Even though you might study in different places in the library, the memory cues are not very distinguishable. It is still better than studying in the same place, but the more variation in the environment – floorplan, art, sculptures, colors, desks, chairs, sounds, smells – the more memory cues your brain will passively latch onto. Look around at your environment when you sit down and notice what's around. Anything cool or unusual your brain will pair with the new information you're learning.
3. If you have limited places to study, then sit in different places and face different directions.
If going out to study is not an option and you're limited to studying in your room, at your dining room table, or in your living room, then rotate those places and sit in different places or face different directions. Facing different directions gives you a different perspective and the cues will be different because you’re seeing things from different angles. A couch looks much different from the front than it does from the side. Remember, the more variation the better, so even changing where you sit in the room and the direction you face will help.
The location effect is most dramatic when taking exams in a place that you have never been before. Studies show that when a person takes a test in a place unfamiliar to them, the study location effect has a bigger impact than if they take the exam in a familiar location, like the classroom in which you attend lectures. It’s almost always the case that you take a standardized exam like the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, or LSAT in a testing center that you’re unfamiliar with, so make sure you vary your location when you’re studying for the exam in order to maximize your recall for the real thing.
Mix up where you study! Pick places that are suitable for studying – reasonable level of noise and distractions. More cues are better. If your study places are limited, then vary where you sit in the room and the direction you face.
- Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6, 342–353.
- Smith, S. M., & Rothkopf, E. Z. (1984). Contextual enrichment and distribution of practice in the classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 341–358.