Study Better By Changing Up Where You Do It

For all you going back to school, here’s a good way to get more value out of your education. The classic advice about studying says to find a calm quiet space with a clear work table and always go there to do your work. Create a work zone so when you’re in it, you know you’re supposed to work. But it turns out having some disruption actually improves retention. In one study, students who memorized the same list of words in two different spaces did far better than students who memorized the same list in the same space twice.


The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

Furthermore, shifting between different kinds of material rather than just drilling one skill helps improve retention as well.

Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits [NYT]