Where and How to Study for Better Recall

By Ashley Guingrich

Everyone studies differently! Are you one of those people who studies, with your homework and notes sprawled out everywhere, while the TV is on? Maybe you enjoy going to the library and hiding behind the bookshelves. Perhaps you enjoy noisy banging and clanging of pans, while your dog barks every 10 seconds. Possibly, you’re none of these people, and MUST STUDY OUTSIDE no matter what, with your laptop. Whatever the case may be, take a moment and think about how you study.

Now, think about the atmosphere in which most tests are taken. Usually, teachers have the room silent, with limited distractions, so that you can focus on the information you encoded into your brain. However, do you ever think, “man, silent test-taking makes me anxious, because I always study in a room with background noise”? You might be on to something! There is something in psychology called encoding specificity, which allows context-dependent and state-dependent memory to work (1). What does this mean? Read more to find out!

The encoding specificity principle states that cues will aid recalling information, as long as the information is encoded and recalled the same way (2). This principle suggests that people who study in a similar atmosphere in which they take a test will do better than people who study in a different atmosphere from the test (1). This describes context-dependent memory, which has been supported by many studies. One example was done by Godden and Baddeley, which tested divers underwater and on land. The divers each had a list of words to study on land or underwater. The results indicated that there was better recall on land, when the divers studied on land. Likewise, the divers who studied underwater, did better during recall when they were tested underwater. On the other hand, the divers who studied information on land did worse when they were tested underwater. This study concluded that divers who encoded and retrieved information congruently did better than divers who encoded and retrieved information in different locations (3).

Another study that demonstrates context-dependency was done by Grant and coworkers. Forty participants were given an article to read under silent or loud atmospheres. Next, they were tested in both conditions. The participants under silent conditions had headphones on with nothing playing, while the other participants had headphones on with a tape recording. As a result, those individuals who were tested in the same context as their studying session did better on the test than participants who were tested in the opposite condition. For example, participants who studied in quiet conditions, did more poorly during retrieval if the atmosphere was loud. This study is similar to Godden and Baddeley, as it demonstrates how encoding and retrieving information in similar atmospheres is more beneficial than studying and being tested in opposite conditions (4).

Isn’t this fascinating? So, context-dependent memory takes place when the environment you study in is the same as the environment you take the test in (1). However, is studying in the same environment the only thing that will help you on that test coming up? Did you know that your mood can also play a role on how well you do? Keep reading to find out why!

State-dependent memory explains that your internal state should be the same during studying and testing periods. A study, which was done by Eich and Metcalfe, was about mood dependency, which is a type of state. They had participants think either positive or negative thoughts while listening to happy or upsetting music. The happiness or sadness of their moods correlated to the type of music they were listening to. They first rated their mood before the music started to play. Then, they rated their mood when they became either extremely unhappy or extremely happy. Next, they had a list of words to study between 15-20 minutes. Two days later, the participants were asked to come back. The same procedure of rating their moods before and during the playing of music was done again. Finally, they had to retrieve the list of words that they memorized two days prior. Results showed that those who studied and recalled information while having the same mood did better than those who didn’t have the same mood during the day of encoding the information (5).

So, stay positive! According to the mood dependency, you will retrieve information better on a test if you have the same mood you did while studying the information (5). Why not be happy and make it a GREAT day? As you get into the routine of studying in the same environment as the test, be happy as well. The context-dependent and state-dependent principles demonstrate that having the same environment or internal mood as you study and test will help with academic performance (1). Next time when you’re studying, try your best to match the environment in which the test will be taken. One location idea is the library while sitting at a desk. Decreasing the noise level during study time will help you on your test.

Before you run off happily to the library, let’s go back to encoding specificity for a minute. Remember, encoding specificity explains that cues will aid recall if the information was encoded and retrieved the same way (2). One study was done by Thomas J. Thieman, which measured participants’ performance on remembering a list of words with the help of cue words. A cue word was given during the encoding process that was either related or unrelated to the target word. Whether it was related or not, participants had to use this word to help them remember the target word during retrieval. When it was retrieval time, they were given either the same cue word they studied or were given a word that wasn’t mentioned during the encoding process. However, all the cue words that changed related to the target word. Participants remembered target words better when the cue words were related and presented during both encoding and retrieval time. The second most remembered list of target words were the same-meaning cues, which weren’t presented during encoding. The target words that were least remembered were the words with a completely different meaning, even though they were presented during encoding and retrieval. This study demonstrates that cues will only be helpful if they have the same meaning as the target word and are mentioned during encoding and retrieval (6).

So, make sure you study the CORRECT information for your test. Studying at a desk in the library isn’t necessarily the perfect way to learn if you’re studying material that isn’t related to the class. So, study the CORRECT information in a similar atmosphere, and make sure you also have a positive attitude. Then,  come in your test day with great optimism, and ace that test! Good luck! You got this!


(1) Barrett, M. E., Swan, A. B., Mamikonian, A., Ghajoyan, I., Kramarova, O., Youmans, R. J. (2014). Technology in note taking and assessment: the effects of congruence on student performance. International Journal of Instruction, 7(1), 51-60.

(2) Tulving, E., Thomson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80(5), 352-373.

(3) Godden, D. R., Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. Br. J. Psychol, 66(3), 325-331.

(4) 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, 617-623.

(5) 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.

(6) Thieman, T. J., (1984). A classroom demonstration of encoding specificity. Teaching of Psychology, 11(2), 101-102.

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