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]


Edit Your Comment

  1. jshier says:

    Studying material multiple times should help you retain it regardless of where you do it.

    • jshier says:

      Derp, misread the summary. I wonder if you could just change the lighting in the same room, or whether it’s a combination of sight and sound.

    • ElizabethD says:

      True for some learning styles, not so much for others. Kids with dyslexia, for example.

  2. smo0 says:

    Studying outside is always nice…. that or you could study anatomy in a dank, dark basement and pretend you’re in a horror film.

    Make the most out of study time, kids!

  3. ElizabethD says:

    Our son has ADD, which we found out when he was 15. To my astonishment, both the psychologist who diagnosed him and the counselor who helped him with study habits gave a thumbs-down to my suggestion that Sonny be required to turn off his iPod while he studied. Apparently, ADD sufferers do better on retention and academic performance when they listen to music while studying. Big win for Sonny.

    • tkninetwofive says:

      Not just kids with ADD (unless I have it and don’t know it). I’m always more productive when I have music going, but it depends greatly on the style of music. It has to be good “background” noise, not something that I’m going to want/need to listen to more closely, because that’ll just distract me from my work.

      • smo0 says:

        “Ridin’ on the bus, ridin’ on the bus, next to bums, there’s an open seat, hope that isn’t pee!”

  4. Consumeristing says:

    I use to run a study group called “progressive studying”. Has nothing to do with politics, we just switch out venues several times in one studying session. We don’t bring the hardcore studying stuff that you obviously need more intense concentration for, just the make-work homeworks.

  5. Rectilinear Propagation says:

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

    That makes sense. The change of subject would force you to re-focus.

    • Ragman says:

      When possible, I’d try look at something again at a different time, so that I’d have to recall the info. That way I could tell what wasn’t sticking when I was sitting down to start studying.

      Another area I personally call BS on is the crap about “Do all the problems before you check the answers in the back of the book”. No. Do the first one, and check it to make sure you’re solving it correctly, BEFORE you end up learning it wrong. Not only could you potentially end up doing it all over again, you could be learning it wrong and then struggling to relearn it when you don’t have as much energy.

  6. Dinhilion says:

    This actually makes a lot of sense. It has been shown that people remember things better when they are in the same situation they learned it. For example, they have shown that people who memorize a series of numbers underwater will remember them better if asked to recall them underwater instead of on dry land. I would not be surprised if studying in multiple locations helps break the association between the knowledge and the situation.

  7. kethryvis says:

    i can get behind this. i’m doing research for my MA thesis which requires a bunch of online reading (i study online communities). One of the best places for me to work is at my local coffee shop. It has the right vibe, and while this sounds silly, it does also have the right amount of distraction. It’s a steady distraction, that fades into the background but somehow helps me work better. Not like at home where the disruption is the cat jumping onto the desk, planting her fuzzy butt in my notebook and her fuzzy face in front of the computer screen.

    i also have to listen to music whilst working, but like another commenter said, music that doesn’t require a lot of attention. i have an entire playlist of music that’s low on vocal that’s great for studying. Either that or The Cure. Go figure.

  8. HogwartsProfessor says:

    I like to listen to music when writing because it relaxes me and I can think better. I put the TV on in the background (muted) also. It helps me concentrate to have something to ignore.