The other day, my 16 year old daughter, Olivia, came home excited to share with me that she was the only student in her History class to pass a difficult test. Normally, I don’t hear about the results of her tests. In fact, she hates it if I ask her about school at all, assuming that my curiosity is actually a way of “trying to get in her business” or “accusing her of not keeping up with her school work”. But when she received a poor grade on a test a couple of weeks earlier, she suddenly became interested in some of the study tips I have been learning in my cognitive psychology class. Over a Route 66 Pharmacy Hot Fudge Sundae, we recalled her study habits before the poorly graded test and compared them to some of the research in my text book, Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, by Bruce Goldstein. One particular strategy that caught her attention was the idea of matching her learning conditions to her testing conditions, based on the principles of encoding specificity and state-dependent learning.
Olivia likes to study at a big desk in our kitchen. There is lots of table space and she often listens to music while she studies. On the day of her test, she sat at a small desk in a quiet classroom. According to the principle of encoding specificity, we “encode information along with its context” (Goldstein, 2011, p.184). This means, when we learn something new, our brains not only encode the new information but information about the environment we are in as well. So, the theory is, if you study for a test in an environment similar or the same as the environment that you will be in while taking the test, you will increase your ability of remembering the information that you learned. Sound a bit unreal? We thought so too, except that research results have supported this theory (Goldstein, 2011).
In the text book, Goldstein (2011) describes a well known study performed by D.R Godden and Alan Baddeley in 1975. In a nutshell, they divided their participants into two groups and had one group learn a list of words on land while the other group learned the list of words wearing scuba gear underwater. Then they placed participants from both groups in each environment and asked them to recall the list of words they learned. The results showed that the participants who were in the same environment as when they were learning the words, recalled more words than those who were tested in a different environment (Goldstein, 2011).
The concept of state dependent learning is similar to encoding specificity, except that it pertains to the state a person is in when encoding and retrieving information. Olivia recalled that when she was studying for the poorly graded test she was very frustrated and annoyed because of an argument she had with her boyfriend. However, when she took the test, she was happy and energized because she had just finished taking her dance class. According to state dependent learning, she would have been able to retrieve more of the information she learned if she was frustrated and annoyed. Once again, it sounds a bit unreal, right? But just like encoding specificity, Goldstein (2011) presented research that supports this theory, such as Eric Eich and Janet Metcalfe’s 1989 “mood” experiment. In this experiment, participants learned words while in a happy or depressed mood. Two days later, the participants did an exercise to put them in the same or opposite mood they were in while learning the words, then they were tested. Those who were in the same mood recalled more words than those who were in the opposite mood (Goldstein, 2011).
After learning about encoding specificity and state-dependent learning, Olivia decided to study for her History test during her free periods at school. This allowed her to learn the information for the test in the same environment as she would be in when taking the test. Because her History class is always after her dance class, she also made a point to get her heart rate up and to put herself in a happy mood by dancing or exercising to music she likes for fifteen minutes before studying. As mentioned, her efforts appeared to work because she did very well on her History test. Of course, one must include other study habits that may have influenced Olivia’s test results, such as her note taking during a lecture and time spent reading or talking about the material. However, the results of Olivia’s efforts to match her learning conditions to her test conditions, along with results of formal research, proves that it is a technique worth considering when studying for your next exam at school, at work or maybe even at a game show!
Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Matching conditions of encoding and retrieval. In Cognitive psychology: Mind, research and everyday experience (3rd ed., pp. 183-186). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.