Where and What Matters when Studying for a Test

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.

9 thoughts on “Where and What Matters when Studying for a Test

  1. wvw5087


    Evonne Rivera

    I can relate to your post so much. I have a daughter in college and her study habits are all pretty regular. Which according to Goldstein, E. B. (2011) and as you have mentioned, study habits are encoded and easier to retrieve if the situation in which you study does not vary and are as similar to where and how the test will be taken.
    I also have to remind myself that when I read especially, I have to do so at the large kitchen table because that is where I will be taking my tests/quizzes. I have tried to read on the couch but I always fall asleep because it is too comfortable. My daughter is able to do her studying and homework on the couch but she sits forward and uses the coffee table, which looks very uncomfortable to me.
    In the experiment by Harry Grant and coworkers (1998) where some of the participants wore headphones with noise (of a noisy cafeteria) and the others wore headphones that were silent while reading an article on psychoimmunology. Afterwards each participant was given a short-answer test about what they had read under each of the conditions and the results showed that the participants did better taking the test under the same study conditions (Goldstein, E. B 2011, pp184).
    Our text and my own physical proof indicates that the best study strategy for taking a test would be to study in the same environment to where the test will be given. My kitchen table for both works perfect for me.
    I’m glad to hear that your daughter did well on her history test and took some pointers from you. Something that will be sure to continue helping her throughout her scholastic career. My daughter has yet to ask me about my study habits and she is the same as your daughter when it comes to me asking about “how school is going?”

    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.

  2. Ashley E Keller

    What an interesting blog post to read! Your catchy title obviously caught a lot of people’s attention including mine. I think it’s awesome that you were able to take something you learned in class and make such a personal connection. I remember back in middle school someone told me that if you chew gum while you study and take the test, it will enhance your performance. I always thought that seemed like unlikely but perhaps there is some truth to it after all! A few years ago I read an article that said if you sit in the same place during lectures and exams, you will score better. I was skeptical at first but figured I had nothing to lose. Sure enough, I felt a lot more relaxed and was able to recall more information taking the test from a familiar location. I have never thought of how my mood could influence studying and taking an exam but it makes sense! Next time I will have to be more conscious of it.
    The concept of encoding specificity is especially interesting from an online classroom perspective. Essentially we can choose when and where to study, listen to lectures, and take exams. Some of us may be a morning person and others are night owls. We are able to take that information and use it to our advantage! Personally, I am the most productive either first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. Not exactly the traditional classroom setting. I always have to do my homework at a big table with no noise or people around. I’ve never understood how people can listen to music, watch TV, lay in bed, etc. Even if it’s a simple assignment, I can’t have any distractions. Needless to say I have never been a very good test taker. However, I have found that online classes significantly reduce my anxiety!

  3. Ciera Rene Barthalow

    I must first compliment you on such a great post that really applies to anyone! I myself have been wondering how I can vamp up my study habits. I’ve taken many psychology courses in the past, ever since high school, and I was always one that thought, “Yeah, sure, like that would really make a difference!”, I’m sure you can slightly hear the typical teenage attitude tone within that phrase. I now know that I was certainly wrong! I first attended Penn State Mont Alto for my Associate’s degree in Human Development & Family Studies. Most of my classes were in a typical classroom setting. I had a lot of down time between classes and I lived 40 minutes away; so I took advantage of that time to study. I would either go into the computer lab or the library, and sit at a desk. I could tell my test performances did much better by studying in the same type of environment as my classes were. Now the struggle came when I started courses online for my Bachelor’s in Psychology with World Campus. It’s so nice to earn an education at home, but the problem was I decided to chill out on my couch or on my bed. I’d read sitting upright, sideways, or even laying down! When I recently read in the textbook about this, I was reminded about performance being better when you study in similar environments. A light bulb lit in my head. How could I have been so negligent, especially when this was proven to work for me a couple years back when I was attending Mont Alto? Now I position myself upward, in a chair, and at a desk or table when studying for an exam. I have noticed my memory becoming much better, and I am able to retain a lot more. Thanks for sharing, and best wishes to your studies, as well as your daughter’s!

  4. Crystal Lynnette Burton

    I am so loving this post, my mother and I just had some of these same discussions. I am now 23 and have been in school all of my life pretty much. My mom has been out of school for maybe about 30 She is a college graduate which is the goal I am aiming for myself once again. However our views on study is totally different. I have always been a student where it never took much for me to pass a test until recently when \the courses I am taking have showed me something else. I truly believe that unless you have a study guide you will never really be prepared for an exam. Where my moms thinking is if you plan your course of studying using your syllabus its no way to get things wrong on your exams. Of course being the psych, major that I am, I have seen several studies on studying and cramming and there are some that I agree with and several others that I do not. I really feel as though in terms of studying its either you get it or you don’t and that determines pass or fail. So many times I have saw people (i.e family and friends) study for exams and the highest grade they have received was a C. And that’s with using all types of study tips and pointers. I feel like with all things the results may vary.

  5. Erica L Davis

    I found our post incredibly interesting. It truly amazes my how where one studies attributes to their test scores. I have had experienced a similar situation to that of your daughter Olivia’s. When I was in high school, I would study in the kitchen so that I could be around my family. I am the type of person who never wants to be alone. I tremendously enjoy company. I chose this particular part of the house because there was constantly traffic and company. Between my mom cooking up a fabulous dinner, the dogs, my brother, or father, there was always a great amount of commotion. I studied hard, new the material extensively, but was still not producing the test results I desired. I knew I needed to change something. After much struggle, I decided I needed to study in my bedroom, which was quiet. Shortly I noticed my test scores increasing although I never attributed it to how our memory works. I am very intrigued by the fact that the environment we learn something in requires a similar environment to retrieve the majority of that information.

  6. Jeffery Thomas Kerr

    It is amazing to hear how state dependent learning was actually used to help your daughter study. You can read all about something from a textbook but applying it to actual life is another story. I remember first reading about this subject and thinking, “This is crazy.” It wasn’t until I actually applied it that I realized it was beneficial.
    I usually study at the office where my mother works and then take the tests at home. I could not figure out why I wasn’t doing particularly well even though I understood the material thoroughly. I often times listen to music when I’m studying as well because it helps calm my mind and enables me to focus more. After reading the text I decided to employ some of the procedures described and to my amazement it actually worked. I originally took the test in complete silence because I thought it would help me concentrate… not so true. I decided to try taking the test while listening to music at home. Surprisingly I did better on my first test. Problem solved? I still did not do as well as I expected. I then realized that it would help to take the test in the same environment that I had studied in. Wow! Something we learned about actually helped greatly. The test I took in the busy office setting came out much more desirable than it did in a quiet different environment.
    I understand why your daughter had so much success in taking her tests in a similar environment that she had studied in. I am glad you were able to share this information because it gave me ground to explore state dependent learning for myself and also greatly improved my success. Isn’t it amazing how something we learn from a book can have such a substantial impact on our everyday life? I think so.

  7. Amanda Terrial Bushman

    I found the section on effective studying so interesting and helpful! That’s great you were able to share the studying techniques with your daughter, I also shared the information I learned from that chapter of Cognitive Psychology (2011) with a loved one. I shared the studying techniques that Goldstein (2011) outlines with my husband after he came home from training some of his co-workers for an upcoming test to certify for their job. Three of his co-workers had told him that they had difficulty with certifying in the past and were worried about the upcoming certification. After I shared Goldstein’s techniques with my husband that night, he passed them on to his co-workers the next day.
    When asked about how they were currently studying, all three of my husband’s co-workers said that they normally studied by reading through the pre-compiled study guides given to them, thinking that this would lead to better memory of the material. Goldstein actually identified rereading material as an ineffective study method that results in an illusion of learning. According to Goldstein, rereading can lead to a greater fluency for material and the occurrence of the familiarity effect that results in greater ability to recognize information, neither of which actually lead to a greater ability to recall the information. According to my husband, all three also appeared to have ineffective note taking skills. My husband challenged them to use the techniques that made the most sense to him; taking organized notes and elaborating on the info they were studying instead of just reading it over and over.
    A week later, all three told my husband that they felt like they were understanding and retaining the information better. They haven’t taken their certification test yet, but they all said they feel more confident and it’ll be interesting to see how their results compare to their previous test results.

    Goldstein, E. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

  8. Jenna Marie Ryan

    That’s really great that you were able to share what you learned with your daughter in order to help her succeed. I work in a learning support classroom and I am always looking for new ways to help my students excel. They only come to us for testing and study halls so it’s important for us to keep a calm, quiet, and welcoming environment. In our classroom, we play music softly and turn off the fluorescent lights in favor of string lights, lamps, and natural lighting. Generally speaking, the students sign in, sit down, and begin working without any prompting. The difference in the students’ – and my – ability to attend to task is incredible on days when I forget to turn on the music or I have to turn on the fluorescent lights. On these days, many of them begin talking before they start or during their test. There is a much greater need for redirection on these days. I had always noticed the difference before but I didn’t realize why it was happening until I read about state-dependent learning. Thanks for sharing!

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