Where Should I Study?
By Cindy Nebel
There is a lot of conflicting information out there about studying. There are a number of websites (e.g. this one (including school websites) that recommend that you create a study space that is free of distractions and maximizes your motivation to work. Other websites recommend that you instead study in lots of different places. All of this contradictory information can be extremely frustrating for a student who is motivated enough to search for the best way to study. So, why the contradiction? Because both are true. Uh oh. Let’s look at each in turn and then talk about the concrete take away from these competing messages.
Single Study Space
As I discussed above, the advantage of a single study space is that you can use it to minimize distractions and maximize focus. You can make the space quiet, without the distractions of television, your phone, other people, or perhaps even the internet. You can customize to your temperature and lighting needs to create an optimal space for you to be able to pay attention for a longer period of time.
It is true that in order to encode information, we must attend to it. If you are the type of person who is easily distracted and cannot focus in the midst of distraction, then it is true that these recommendations probably make good sense for you. However, we’ve also talked before about the complicated effects of distraction on memory. It turns out that the extra effort that you put into learning something in the midst of distraction can actually be helpful, particularly if you’re working on material that isn’t too hard to learn. The more difficult the material, the less the distractions create extra effort and the less that they matter.
This knowledge still doesn’t help us to determine if you should use a single study space or multiple. It is possible that you could choose a single study session that involves an element of distraction. For example, maybe you could find the perfect spot at a local coffeehouse that has similar elements as those above – good lighting and temperature, no television, leave your phone at home (and plenty of coffee!). The question is still whether it would be better to have one spot that is your ideal place for studying or to study in lots of places, so let’s look at the latter…
Variable Study Spaces
There is a concept in psychology called “context-dependent memory”. The idea is that when we are learning something new, we incorporate aspects of our environment into that learning. For example, you might not be able to remember exactly what the teacher said in class about a particular topic, but remember that the girl in front of you was wearing a bright green shirt that day. Portions of our environment become a part of any given memory and can then be used as access points when we are trying to recall a memory. Have you ever had a smell trigger a recollection of an event? If you were to study in a coffee shop or next to someone wearing particularly pungent cologne, you might have a recollection of the history, science, or psychology material you were studying the next time you come across that smell.
As a student, you might think, “This is perfect! I’ll sneak into the classroom every evening so that I’m studying in the exact same environment where I will take my test!” That could work, sure, if it was physically possible and if the test was the only time you ever needed to recall this information. But in reality, you probably won’t be studying under the exact same circumstances in which you will need to recall. You don’t know what people will be wearing when you take the test and you might just need this material later in life (or at least during another course). This is where variable studying comes in. If you study in lots of different situations with different background sights, smells, noises, etc. then you will be able to use any of those things as a possible access point when you are trying to retrieve the information you learned. This creates a more elaborative network, even if you aren’t directly paying attention to all that background information.
Ideally, try to mix up your study spaces. You still want to minimize the type of distractions that are going to keep you from studying. Things like television and your phone might reduce the amount of time that you devote to your studies, which could be problematic and certainly inefficient. But other distractions, like a little background noise, might actually help some. Studying in the library, at a coffee shop, or in the student union might make for decent study spaces and will create some variability in the environment, which will help you to bring that information back to mind later on.
To read the science behind these suggestions, take a look at:
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.
Smith, S. M., & Vela, E. (2001). Environmental context-dependent memory: A review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8, 203-220.