Why where you study affects what you learn

Environment is important for memory – so host study sessions where students will sit the exam, says Jared Cooney Horvath
18th October 2019, 12:03am
Environment Can Have A Big Impact On Making & Retrieving Memories, Research Suggests

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Why where you study affects what you learn

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-where-you-study-affects-what-you-learn

In 1975, researchers asked a group of deep-sea divers to memorise a list of words while they were underwater. The next day, half the group dived again while the others remained on dry land. All were asked to recall as many words as they could from the previous day. The divers who returned to where the original learning occurred remembered 35 per cent more words than those who did not. This suggests that where learning takes place has a strong influence on what is ultimately learned.

Within the brain, the hippocampus is our gateway to memory. Essentially, all new information must pass through this neural structure in order to be remembered and accessed at a later date.

Nestled at its base is a small brain region called the parahippocampal place area. This automatically and subconsciously encodes information about our surrounding physical environment and feeds it through the hippocampus - meaning that environmental information becomes an integral aspect of each newly formed memory.

However, environments are composed of more than physical features: they also contain sounds, smells, tastes and more. Without our being consciously aware of it, these features also become deeply embedded within each newly formed memory (although we’re not quite sure which brain regions mediate this process).

Importantly, these physical and sensory cues can be utilised - even subconsciously - in the future to help trigger and cue relevant memories.

Whenever we first encounter information, it becomes strongly tied to the context in which it was learned.

Furthermore, continued exposure within this same context serves to further embed these contextual features within our memory. This is the reason why you might sometimes have trouble recognising colleagues if you bump into them outside the workplace.

However, if we expose ourselves to the same information across many and varied contexts, eventually we can decouple contextual features from our memory and access this information across numerous different (even novel) situations. This is the reason why you probably have no problem picking your partner out of a crowd, even from a long distance away.

Put simply, environmental variety is the key to creating context-independent, freely accessible memories.

Putting the theory into practice

If students are preparing for a one-off exam that will occur within a known location, they can leverage context-dependent effects by practising in the testing location (or, at least, a very similar location). Be sure to embrace not only physical aspects but also any noises (the hum of ceiling fans?), smells (decades-old gym equipment?) or other physical sensations (are they wearing a scratchy polyester shirt?) relevant to the testing context. This can boost final exam performance significantly.

However, if students are preparing for an exam that will occur in an unknown or uncertain location (or if they are preparing for sustained long-term performance), then they should practise in many varied environments (home, library, cafeteria, the park and so on). When students prepare across different contexts, this can significantly boost performance in novel, unknown or unpredictable locations.

Jared Cooney Horvath is an educational neuroscientist at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. He tweets @JCHorvath

This article originally appeared in the 18 October 2019 issue under the headline “Where was I? How location can influence learning”

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