Most people hear the advice that sitting down in a quiet place to study for long hours every day is what works best. However, there is plenty of evidence for other approaches. I tend to use a mix of this with some on-the-go learning and I find this works best for me.
In the end, this is going to come down to personal choice. There is evidence that switching up your locations can be helpful when it comes to preparing for exams. On the flip side, it looks like studying in one place and then imagining the context in which you studied the material during test time can be effective.
Only Studying in a Single Location
The importance of where you learn information has been shown to be important in past research. Specifically, studying in a single place that matches your testing environment is beneficial for memory.
For instance, in a classic study, scuba divers were given a list of words to memorize either on land or underwater. The divers were then either tested in the same external environment they studied (studied underwater land and tested underwater) or a mismatched environment (Studied underwater and tested on land). The divers with matching environments outperformed the divers with mismatched environments!
This is called Context-dependent Memory.1
Environments can also be internal. For example, matching your mood between learning and testing environments can help with your test. This is called mood-dependent memory. This was demonstrated in a study that used hypnotism to induce specific moods in people. People who had matching moods at learning and test times had better results.2
Essentially, there is research showing that matching learning and testing context helps with memory.3
Studying in one location can be a double-edged sword
But this doesn’t always mean that studying in the same place is always beneficial.
The more you study in the same place the better you will perform in that specific environment. If you learn in one place and then switch to another that is different your learning will be worse and this is what happened in the mismatched contexts in the scuba diver study.1
Unfortunately, at university, studying in mismatched contexts is very common. Ideally, you would do all your learning where you will be tested, but we can’t do this at university.
Beyond this, It’s also important to realize that location is just one of the many factors that affect your recall. Other factors like the time you study are highly related and equally important to consider. I have another article that goes in-depth on the best time to study if you want to learn more about why Both time and place are important.
Studying in Many Locations Improves Recall
It turns out that you can actually outperform people in a matched context by studying in multiple places!
There is research showing that studying in multiple different places actually improves memory compared to just studying in the same place.
For instance, an experiment was carried out where people studied the information in two very different locations. One location was a cluttered room in an old building with a blackboard, no windows, and glass cabinets. On the other hand, the other room was in a clean tiny animal laboratory filled with rat cages and a couple of windows.4
The subjects were then played audio tapes and shown slides of words they had to learn. After 2 sessions, they were then tested 3 hours later and told to write down all the words they remember.4
The participants remembered far more of the 40-word list when the contexts were varied rather than matched!4
So why exactly do students get much better exam scores when they study in multiple places?
By Switching your studying environment regularly you will be subtly encoding different environmental cues around you that will help you recall more information in many different places. Multi-place studying means you will remember more wherever you go which can be very helpful on your exam.5
These can be either external context or internal state cues and they give us hints when we try and remember information. Importantly we use these cues in an unconscious way. You don’t have to do any extra work to gain this benefit!5
Should you Study In the Same Place Every Day?
It is clear changing your studying context repeatedly will help you with your exams. However, this doesn’t mean that you won’t do well by studying in the same place every day.
First, there is evidence that the benefit from varying contexts can be overcome with other techniques.5 For instance, if you always learn in the same room you can gain context-matching benefits by imagining the room in which you learned the material later on at test time. This is called context reinstatement.5
Finally, there are quite a few general bonus benefits to always studying in the same place.
Benefits of studying in the same place every day
Your space is organized
You can keep your space organized and you don’t need to set up your stuff each and every time. On top of this, you can have a nice study setup with multiple monitors that simply would not be possible while learning on the go.
Many of the places you choose to study that are not dedicated spaces will likely be more distracting compared to a dedicated space.
You won’t have to find new spots
If you choose to study in multiple spaces you will have to find new spots, deal with potential seating issues in public places, or time transitioning between places. With your own place, you will not have these issues.
Which location should you choose?
Whether you want to switch between many locations or commit to a single one, it’s important that the location suits your needs. The common choices are either studying at home, at a coffee shop, or at a library.
I have other articles that explain in depth these different studying locations and whether they are the right choice for you. I have linked these below.
You need to choose for yourself whether it is worth it to study in the same place. You can either use techniques to overcome the issues that come with only learning in one spot, or study in multiple places and not have to overcome the double-edged word of context-dependant learning but give up the conveniences of having a dedicated space.
- Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). CONTEXT-DEPENDENT MEMORY IN TWO NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS: ON LAND AND UNDERWATER. The British Journal of Psychology, 66(3), 325–331. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1975.tb01468.x
- Bower, G. H. (1981). Mood and memory. American Psychologist, 36(2), 129–148. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.36.2.129
- McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, D. C., Einstein, G. O., & O’Halloran, C. M. (1989). Modulation of environmental reinstatement effects through encoding strategies. The American Journal of Psychology, 102(4), 523–548. https://doi.org/10.2307/1423306
- Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6(4), 342–353. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03197465
- Smith, S. M., & Vela, E. (2001). Environmental context-dependent memory: a review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8(2), 203–220. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03196157
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