Cats or dogs, ketchup or mustard and studying in a library or studying in a dorm room — these choices all seem to come down to personal preference. With psychological insight on how the environment impacts information retention, however, there may actually be a “right” answer to the ongoing debate of trekking out to the nearest library to study for your next prelim versus staying in the comfort of your own home.
Prof. David Smith, psychology, researches the neuronal responses and electrical impulses in the brains of mice to determine how the brain takes in new information, stores it and retrieves it at a later time. Smith explained how context and environment can affect learning.
“The things that you learn get linked to the place where you learned them. The environment becomes a cue to retrieve the information that you learned in that context,” Smith said. “The situation where you study should be as similar as possible to the situation where you’re going to take the test — like a library setting.”
But there is more than just the environment-material association at play — studying in a dorm room or apartment can lead to a multitude of distractions.
“People think that they can shrug off the distraction of having lots of stuff going on around them while they’re studying and do fine, but in reality, that has a detrimental effect,” Smith said.
The combination of friends just down the hall, the lack of noise constraints and the temptation of a quick nap can prevent a smooth and uninterrupted study session. And while the association made between the environment and the material learned is beneficial, Smith suggests that poor time management can mitigate the positive effect of this on test performance.
According to Smith, studying material over extended periods of time in various settings will ingrain the content into the mind as it has been seen in several different contexts, giving one more ways to access the information. Since this material now has multiple contextual cues rather than just one, it can be more easily retrieved even if the situation is unfamiliar.
So while environment-content association is important, simply studying in libraries will not solve academic troubles and nor grant prelim A-pluses. However, students should still study in a place that more closely resembles their future test-taking scenario in order to link that material and a stressful test-taking situation.