Where Should Students Study?

We’ve got lots of advice for the students in our lives:

How to study: retrieval practice

When to study: spacing effect

Why study: so many answers

Where to study: …um, hold please, your call is very important to us…

As can happen, research provides a counter-intuitive — and sometimes contradictory — answers to that last question.

I grew up hearing the confident proclamation that we should create a perfect study environment in one place, and always study there. (The word “library” was spoken in reverent tones.)

As I think about the research I’ve seen in the last ten years, my own recommendations to students have been evolving.

Classic Beginnings

In a deservedly famous study, Smith, Glenberg and Bjork (1978) tried to measure the effect on environment on memory.

They found that, in the short run, I associate the words that I learn in this room with the room itselfThat is: if I learn words in room 27, I’ll do better on a test of those words in room 27 than in room 52.

One way to interpret those findings is that we should teach in the place where students will be tested.

If the final exam, inevitably, is in the gym, I should teach my students in the gym. And they should study in the gym. This approach ensures that they’ll associate their new knowledge with the place they have to demonstrate that knowledge.

In this theory, students should learn and study in the place they’ll ultimately be tested.

Priority Fix #1

This interpretation of Smith’s work makes sense if — and only if — the goal of learning is to do well on tests.

Of course, that’s not my goal. I don’t want my students to think carefully about literature for the test; I want them to think carefully about literature for life.

I want them to have excellent writing skills now, and whenever in the future they need to write effectively and clearly.

We might reasonably worry that a strong association between the room and the content would limit transfer. That is: if I connect the material I’ve learned so strongly with room 27, or the gym, I might struggle to remember or use it anywhere else.

Smith worried about that too. And, sure enough, when he tested that hypothesis, his research supported it.

In other words, he found that students who study material in different locations can use it more flexibly elsewhere. Students who study material in only one location can’t transfer their learning so easily. (By the way: Smith’s research has been replicated. You can read about this in Benedict Carey’s How We Learn. Check out chapter 3.)

This finding leads to a wholly different piece of advice. Don’t do what my teachers told me to do when I was a student. Instead, study material in as many different places as reasonably possible. That breadth of study will spread learning associations as widely as possible, and benefit transfer.

That’s what I’ve been telling students for the last several years.

Voila. Generations of teaching advice overturned by research!

Priority Fix #2

Frequent readers have heard me say: “Researchers work by isolating variables. Schools work by combining variables.”

The longer I do this work, the longer I think that this “where to study” advice makes sense only if I focus exclusively on that one variable.

If I start adding in other variables, well, maybe not so much.

True enough, research shows that I’ll remember a topic better if I study it in different places … as long as all other variables being held constant. But, in life, other variables aren’t constant.

Specifically, some study locations are noisier than others. Starbucks is louder than the library: it just is. And, some locations are visually busier than others.

And, as you would expect, noise — such as music — distracts from learning. So, too, do visually busy environments.

So, a more honest set of guidelines for students goes like this:

You should review material in different places. But, you want each of those places to be quiet. And, you don’t want them to have much by way of visual distraction.

You know what that sounds like to me? The library.

I suppose it’s possible for students to come up with several different study locations that are equally quiet and visually bland. Speaking as a high school teacher, I think it’s unlikely they’ll actually do that.

So, unless they’ve got the bandwidth to manage all those demands even before they sit down to study, then I think the traditional advice (“library!”) is as good as anything.

Final Thoughts

People occasionally ask me where I am in the “traditional vs. progressive” education debate.

The honest answer is: I’m indifferent to it. I (try to) focus on practical interpretations of pertinent psychology and neuroscience research.

If that research leads to a seemingly innovative suggestion (“study in many locations!”), that’s fine. If it leads to a traditional position (“library”), that’s equally fine.

I think that, for the most part, having teams in education (prog vs. trad) doesn’t help. If we measure results as best we can, and think humbly and open-mindedly about the teaching implications, we’ll serve our students best.

tags: / category: L&B Blog

One Response to Where Should Students Study?

  1. Matt Brown says:

    I do not take any approach to the place of study either.
    Back when I was a student myself, I studied at the library, at home, and even in a cafe (although it’s very hard to concentrate there).
    I no longer associate knowledge with the place, but with the situation. That is, I remember exactly what happened when I read this textbook (I remember not only the place but also the time and details). But I can remember it no matter where I am.
    Indeed, the question of where to study is overshadowed by the importance of how to learn and what to learn!

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