Varying the place you study is a change that requires very little effort on your part, but can dramatically boost your long-term retention of material. Just as I previously recommended that you change your paper from the traditional white paper with blue lines to gray paper without lines because it boosts your retention of material without any active changes in your study habits, I recommend that you choose several different places to study and rotate them. It doesn’t take much effort to study in a different room in your house, or find a different building on campus, or frequent a few different coffee shops or bookstores instead of the same one over and over again.
Research has shown that people who study in different locations, or attend lectures in different locations perform better on tests. Here are two example studies:
University of Michigan1
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.
3 hours later, for the second study session, half of the students from each group studied the words in their same room, and half of the students from each group switched rooms.
3 hours after that, all the students were given a test on the list of words. Amazingly, the students who had switched rooms for the second study session got an average of 21% more of the words correct on the test!
Texas A&M University2
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 worked on for 30 minutes.
The students were divided into 4 groups: Group 1 completed the four lessons in 1 day, and in 1 classroom. Group 2 completed the four lessons in one day, but in 4 different classrooms. Group 3 completed the four lessons over 4 days, and in 1 classroom. And Group 4 completed the four lessons over 4 days, and in 4 different classrooms.
After 5 days the students were given a battery of tests from free recall to working problems. And who were the winners? 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, and (2) learning the material in different locations was better than learning the material in one location.
The first result is not surprising in the least – spacing out learning is always more effective than cramming. However, the second result may be somewhat surprising. I’m sure you’ve been told at some point 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. DON’T DO THIS!
Why Does Studying in Different Places Work?
Varying the environment in which you study provides your brain with more memory cues to recall the information. The more memory cues your brain has to retrieve the information, the more likely you are to recall the information on the test, and the better your score. Even though the place you study does not require any conscious work from your brain, other than choosing the location, it automatically builds those 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 to get the answer right, 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, your brain won’t store any extra memory cues from your study location because they’re the same for everything you study. But if you studied for 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 additional memory cues.
We humans evolved to pair information with location in order to catalogue the world around us. If we found a place on the lake that has good fishing, we remember the location. If we found a good patch of berries to eat, we remember the location. Our brains were hardwired to pair images and locations, and these same circuits still power our brains today – if you study photosynthesis in a classic novels section of the library which happens to have a statue of Mark Twain, your brain will catalogue photosynthesis along with that statue of Mark Twain, and when you answer questions about photosynthesis on the test, your brain will pull the Mark Twain cue to help you remember the rest. Cool, huh?
So what exactly should you do when selecting locations? Here’s my advice:
1. Walk into a random building and look around until you find a suitable studying place.
Of course I’m referring primarily to college campuses here – don’t try to walk into the Pentagon 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 parks if the weather is nice. Of course, you have to balance looking for a new place with its suitability for studying. You don’t want to study in a place that has lots of distractions or loud noise or people, unless you have the ability to completely tune them out. Generally, a relatively quiet place with a white noise background is best. For me, complete silence doesn’t work well. However, as soon as you can start making out people’s conversations, or hear distinct words or lyrics from a radio or TV, they can become a distraction.
2. Choose places that have the most cues.
More cues will help your brain retain and retrieve information better. If you study at a big college library, most of the library is 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 – the more memory cues you will acquire.
3. If you have a limited number of places to study, then sit in different places and face different directions.
If you only have the option of studying in your room at home, at your dining room table, or in your living room, then rotate those three places, but sit in different places or face different directions in the room each time you study. Facing different directions gives you a different perspective on the room, and the cues will appear different because you’re observing them 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 a little bit.
The location effect is more 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 that is 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 minimal distractions. More cues are better than fewer cues. If you are limited in where you can study, 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.