Professors Hate This Study Method: How Wearing a Zumba Suit and Binging On Kahlúa Improved Exam Scores

By Christopher Forte and Shantell Brusse

So your class has just taken a difficult calculus exam. Amongst the crowd of people leaving the classroom are expressions of relief, profound joy and confidence. There is a light at the end of everyone’s tunnel, except for you. You stagger outside the classroom in complete astonishment, run into Walgreens to buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s half-baked cookie dough paradise and proceed to crawl in bed to withdraw from such a cruel world.

The following week is spent in wallowing as the inevitable test grade is posted onto D2L and your dreams of leading an armada of food trucks are foolishly, however temporarily, put into question. Assuming that there are no perfect people on Earth, such a failure may lead to a short-lived, higher ingestion of alcohol. More days pass and you break out of your drunken spree only to realize that it is the day of the next calculus exam. A short review of the notes and you find yourself sitting in the same classroom where the exam review took place several days before. Still slightly inebriated, the exam is completed and turned back to the TA. The surprise of your life is posted on D2L as you score higher than you ever have before in the class.

Dear freshman, your experience may differ here at Marquette. Drinking and last minute studying usually do not go hand in hand with academic success. Nevertheless, the hypothetical example sheds light on a proven cognitive process known as encoding specificity.

The encoding specificity principle claims when the same conditions are present at the time of encoding and at the time of retrieval, it is more likely that the individual will be able to recall the encoded information, (4). The conditions can be a mental or physical state of the individual, the location or surroundings of the individual, or the context the information is in. This is because our brain not only encodes the information but also encodes the conditions in which the information was presented in.

The studying experiment done by Harry Grant and coworkers, (1), is one experiment that reveals how encoding specificity works. All the participants were told to read an article on psycho-immunology while wearing headphones.  The subjects were split into two groups; the silent group which did not hear anything through their headphones and the noisy group which heard a recording of muffled noise from a university’s cafeteria during lunchtime. All the subjects were then given a short-answer test on the article they read. However, half of each group took the test under with the noisy condition and the other half took the test under the quiet condition. The results of the experiment showed that the participants did better on the test when their testing condition matched their studying condition.

Now that you are totally convinced that encoding specificity is a thing, you may be asking yourself, how can anything on this blog post benefit me at all? For most of you, you will probably think about reasons not to take a cognitive psychology class or completely forget about everything you have read on this post within minutes. Posts like these become irrelevant very quickly when only read, or stared at for a few minutes. If you do decide to read and then apply the few elements of coding specificity mentioned here, you may improve your grades just enough to get off academic probation.

However, I feel obligated to mention a few encoding strategies to ensure that everyone closes out this blog with some plan for success that is relevant to encoding specificity. The encoding specificity principle emphasizes that people cannot just reference their vast store of semantic information and find a single memory, (2). As the semantic system permits the retrieval of information that may not be directly stored in it, we can rely on retrieval cues at the time of encoding to access particular material, (3). Given this, which of the following four approaches to studying are based off the encoding specificity principle?

A. Have a positive attitude while studying and maintaining the same optimism during the test.

B. Wearing a Zumba suit and ingesting a measured quantity of kalúa while studying and during an exam.

C. Studying and taking the exam outdoors.

D. Experiencing electrical shock while studying and during the duration of the exam.

E. All of the above

If you selected choice E, close out of this blog, walk to Dr. Lovell’s [President of Marquette] office and demand your diploma on the spot because you are far too qualified for an undergraduate degree. Whether you selected the right answer or not, I believe the best route to fully understanding this material would be to try each option during your time at Marquette. Jokes aside, option A is probably the best strategy. The encoding specificity principle predicts an overlap between encoding and retrieval processes, psychologically, and by extension, in the brain, (5). Keeping the same positive mentality while studying and taking an exam allows you to better recall information, considering your consistent mood. You are simply recreating the conditions in which you studied and first encoded the information being tested.

Our mind is capable of encoding and storing a large capacity of information and memories. However, it would all be very useless if we were unable to retrieve any of it. No one is capable of retrieving everything that is ever stored in our mind as we are only able to access a portion of it. And we’ve all had one those days when we are trying so hard to remember something like the answer to a test but we just can’t remember it.

One factor that helps with retrieval, as we just learned, is cues. But in order for these cues to be effective, they need to be connected with a memory. The cues, or conditions, must be present at the time of the encoding and then again at the time of the retrieval in order to help produce the memory. The encoding specificity principle has proven to be effective in assisting retrieval.

Matching the conditions in which you are studying to the conditions in which you your test will be taken in will assist in achieving higher test scores. Being faced with exams is inevitable, not just here at Marquette, but at any college institute. In order to achieve academic success, one must study and work hard and using this cognitive principle will help in achieving that success by giving you a better chance of accessing that information.


(1) Grant, H. M., Bredahl, L. C., Clay, J., Ferrie, J., Groves, J.E., McDorman, T. A., DARK, V. J. (1998). Context-Dependent memory for meaningful material: information for students Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12(6), 617-623. (

(2) Santa, J. L., & Lamwers, L. L. (1974). Encoding specificity: Fact or artifact? Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 13, 412–423. (

(3) Tulving, E. and Donaldson, W. (1972) Episodic and semantic memory, Organization of    memory. New York: Academic Press.(

(4) Tulving, E., &Thomson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80, 352–373 (

(5) Vaidya, C. J, Zhao, M. , Desmond, J. E. , Gabrieli, J. D.E (2002). Evidence for cortical encoding specificity in episodic memory: memory-induced re-activation of picture processing areas. Neuropsychologia, 40, 2136-2143.  (

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