Stress Well to Test Well? How Applying State Dependent Learning Can Lead to Better Test Results

By Nina Relias and Madeline Rockhold

Ever heard of the expressions “dress well to test well” or “I only study well when I am under a lot of stress”?  Most college students have their own theories or myths about their study habits which may or may not be accurate. We will be addressing these myths by exploring the nature of state dependent memory and learning.  Psychologists have determined that outside factors influence how one studies.  By definition, state dependent learning is a type of learning that is associated with a specific state.  People have better memory recall when information is retrieved in the same state that it was learned in. Especially when referring to mood. This occurs because human’s brains are comprised of a network of interconnected units or nodes, which activate other surrounding emotional nodes. These nodes are connected to certain events and stimuli in one’s environment that are associated with a specific emotion.  These emotions are spread to other association nodes that then are able to interpret stored information along the pathway of activation with more accessibility (1).  In short, someone will have better memory retrieval if that person’s mood or physical state is the same at both encoding and retrieval.

A main focus of mood dependent memory and learning research has been the emotions of sad and happy and their effects on free recall. A study conducted by Eich and Metcalfe (1989) delved into the effects of sad versus happy emotions on free recall. In order to get their participants to reach a certain emotion, they played music that would either bring the participants own perception of their mood to a higher or lower level. Once the participant reached a certain mood level, they were given a reading or word generating task. Two days later, the participants were brought back in for a retrieval session where they were again subjected to a change in mood and had to answer questions based on their previous reading task. Their new mood could be the same as their original mood in the first part of the study or it could be the complete opposite . To sum up Eich and Metcalfe’s findings on this aspect of the study, participants had significantly better free recall when they were recalling information in the same state that they learned the information (2). How can this help college students? Make sure you are studying in the same mood that you will be experiencing while taking the exam. If exams in general are not a pleasant experience for you, listening to sadder music while you study will help you recall the information better when it comes to testing. If you tend to be a happy test taker, happy music would be the way to go.

Some studies have been addressing fear and its effects on memory.  When people are in states of fear, past information associated with fear is evoked and other information that is not related to fear is not as accessible (3).  Basically, when people are scared, they think about past scenarios or information when they were previously scared and have trouble thinking of other information not associated with this emotion.  People who view the world with fear typically see the world as more dangerous and often are more associated with chronic anxiety.  In a study conducted by Lang et al, the relationship between fear and relaxation throughout learning and retrieval was examined.  Participant’s memory was tested during the same state during learning and retrieval and was tested during a different state during learning and retrieval.  This topic is typically hard to get reliable results yet, they found that physical arousal made a difference in what people were able to remember.  If people were aroused during learning and aroused during recall, information was recalled better.  Same goes for relaxation (4).  Presented by the right conditions, results could be found between state dependent memory and fear/anxiety.  When students apply this to learning and memory, students who are nervous and anxious while studying and are also nervous and anxious when taking a test, they will do better than if they were relaxed while studying but anxious at the test.  If possible, if you are relaxed while studying and relaxed when testing, results will be better.  Regardless, your arousal level should be the same as when studying and when taking the test.

Many popular college studying myths can be busted through the exploration of state dependent learning. The first myth is the idea that studying while exercising is beneficial to memorization. However, unless you are taking your test on the treadmill, it will be less effective than studying in a desk. It is true that studying while doing aerobic exercise can be beneficial but only if the material has to be recalled in a situation also involving aerobic exercise. In fact, the Miles and Hardman (1998) study that researched this exact topic found that the more one’s heart rate changes while trying to memorize something, the more errors were present in later free recall (5). A second myth is that Adderall, or other performance enhancing drugs having to do with focus, will help with being able to memorize more in a shorter amount of time and eventually lead to higher test grades. This myth is false as well. Despite the fact that Adderall has adverse effects on people’s focus that do not actually need it, taking Adderall, or any other drug for that matter, while studying will not increase memory recall while taking the test unless you are also under the exact same dosage that you were while studying. Even then, performance is better for participants who are drug free all together. The same applies to caffeine.  (6). All aspects considered, according to state-dependent learning and memory, study in an environment and mood state in which you will be most likely taking your exam.

Leave the coffee at home!


1) Goldstein, B, E. (2015). Cognitive Psychology. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

2) Eich, E., & Metcalfe, J. (1989). Mood Dependent Memory for Internal Versus External Events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 15(3), 443-455.

3) Robinson, S., & Rollings, L. (2011). The Effect of Mood-Context on Visual Recognition and Recall Memory. The Journal of General Psychology, 138(1), 66-79.

4) Ariel J. Lang , Michelle G. Craske , Matt Brown & Atousa Ghaneian (2001) Fear-related state dependent memory, Cognition and Emotion, 15(5), .695-703.

5) Miles, C., & Hardman, E. (1998). State-dependent memory produced by aerobic exercise. Ergonomics, 41(1), 20–28.

6) Cross, J., & Poling, A. (1993). State-dependent learning In F. van Haaran (Ed.), Methods in Behavioral Pharmacology (pp. 245-255). Amsterdam, Elsevier Science Publishers.

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