Study Smarter Not Harder

By Savannah Little

So, you are a freshman in college now. How exciting! Everything is about to change, and you will be surrounded by so many new things such as new people, new classes, and new responsibilities. Something that changes when entering college classes is going to be how you study. Whether you needed to or not in high school college is a whole new adventure and to pass the classes you are enrolled in you need to make sure you are equipped on how and where to study. There are many things to do to help improve your test scores, but there are a few simple things to do to make your next test run a little more smoothly. You can improve how you study which in return will improve your test grade simply by learning about a few simple things such as: context dependent memory, state dependent memory, and the encoding specificity principle. By incorporating these things into your daily study rituals, you will be sure to get an A on that next college exam!

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What is the Encoding Specificity Principle?

The Encoding Specificity Principle says that cues will aid recalling information if they are retrieved and stored in the same way (1). The Encoding Specificity Principle has two parts that are being used in it which include the person scanning their memories to come up with an answer and then they are being tested to see if what they say goes with what most people say (2). Like when being asked about remembering a phrase such as head light many people will remember light but not head or head and not light (2). In a study that was done where a group of people were asked to memorize a list of words it was shown that not everything on that list was encoded only certain words were remembered after the first day. What these researchers found was that words more closely related were more easily encoded in the memory (3). This might seem like a lot of information to take in, but basically what this research found was that studying things that are more closely related at one time will help you to remember when it comes to the test. So in order to get that A on your next test think about putting things in groups that relate and then studying those one at a time in order to get that information encoded into your memory!

What is Context Dependent Memory?

Context dependent memory is any change that occurs from the learning of something to the test (1). So, when someone is studying for a test in a loud environment, but then takes the test in a quiet room it could cause that person to get a worse grade. One way to fix this problem is simply by studying in a quieter environment to simulate that of the test you are about to take. So, what does this mean? It means that when you are deciding where to study you should think about what the room you take the test will be like. Will it be loud or quiet? Dark or bright? If the answer is like most you should probably stay away from loud areas such as the cafeteria to study and instead pick an empty classroom or the library to be successful in your studies. In another study they talked about how smell could also affect how you remember (4). So if you are sitting next to a trash can while studying and your classroom smells like flowers you might want to change that because that smell could just make your grade go down. If you are still not sure what all of this means yet to put it simply make sure wherever you study is more like the place that you will be taking your next exam than not!

What is State Dependent Memory?

There’s one more thing we don’t really think about while we are studying for out exams, and that is our mood, however, studies have shown that being in a good mood versus a bad one can actually help you remember things better (5). Now keep in mind that you still need to study, and just because you are in a good mood doesn’t mean you will get an A+, but if you study hard and have a positive attitude your grade just might improve. So, the next time you are sitting in the library stressing about how you are going to get everything done take a minute to think about all the things that you have already done. By making the negative into a positive you might just find yourself with an increase in grade which can put a smile on just about anyone’s face!

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So to all the freshman who have been so stressed up to this point in your college career use these tips to try and ease your mind a little. If you learned anything from this I hope that it is that you can earn the grades if you try different things and techniques. It isn’t always about sitting somewhere for 8 hours looking at the same piece of paper sometimes changing locations, and being in a good mood along with relating the things you study to one another can get you that A you want! So, now it is time to go out and test out these new things you just learned about studying out!


(1) Murnane, K., Phelps, M. P., & Malmberg, K. (1999). Context-dependent recognition memory: The ICE theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 128(4), 403–415.

(2) Martin, E. (1975). Generation-recognitionn theory and the encoding specificity principle. Psychological Review, 82(2), 150–153.

(3) Humphreys, M. S., & Galbraith, R. C. (1975). Forward and backward associations in cued recall: Predictions from the encoding specificity principle. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 1(6), 702–710.

(4) Levin, H. C., & Heberle, J. F. (2008). The Effect of Odor Familiarity on Context-Dependent Memory. Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, 13(3), 148–152. Retrieved from

(5) Schramke, C. J., & Bauer, R. M. (1997). State-dependent learning in older and younger adults. Psychology and Aging, 12(2), 255–262.



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