Memory and the learning environment

Would students perform better if testing occurred in an environment like the one in which they studied? Previous research with adults has shown that similarity between the studying and testing conditions does help recall. Recall is better when the information studied is tested under similar conditions — either noisy or quiet. To find out if students experience context-dependent effects, researchers at Iowa State University asked students, 17 years of age and older, to read an article in either noisy or silent conditions and then assessed their reading comprehension in both silent and noisy situations.

An earlier study indicates that recall of information is more context-dependent than simple recognition of information. This means that a matching or multiple-choice test would be less affected by context than an essay or fill-in-the-blank test in which students would have to draw information from their memory rather than simply recognize correct information when they saw it. Cognitive psychologists speculate that environmental context-dependency effects occur because characteristics of the environment are encoded as part of the memory trace and can be used to enhance retrieval of other information in the trace. On tests requiring only recognition, the strong cues of the recognition items themselves probably overshadow the relatively weak contribution of environmental context cues.

Researchers at Iowa State observe that students actually study in environments very different from those in which they are tested. Study environments often include background noise or music from either family, friends or television, while test environments typically are quieter. If context dependency occurs with meaningful course material, then students’ study habits could be harming their test performance.

Study Conditions

These researchers chose to manipulate the presence or absence of general background noise rather than music because people vary so widely in the type of music they listen to. Students read a two-page article under silent or noisy conditions and were then tested under matching or mismatching conditions. The tests were designed to mimic standard classroom tests. Students completed both a short-answer recall test and a multiple-choice test. The multiple-choice test consisted of sixteen sentence stems with four alternatives each. Ten short-answer questions were derived from those multiple-choice stems. The order of the questions followed the order in which the tested points were presented in the text. The short-answer test was always administered first to ensure that information was recalled from the article being tested and not from the multiple-choice items.

All participants wore headsets while they read the article. Those assigned to noisy environments listened to the moderately loud background noise of lunchtime in a university cafeteria. Care was taken to prevent complete sentences from being audible, but occasional words and phrases were heard above the general conversational noise and sounds of chairs and dishes. Those in silent conditions would hear nothing. Students learning under the noisy conditions of the lunchroom were told they would hear background noise but that they should ignore it. Although there was considerable individual variability, students in noisy and quiet conditions spent roughly equal amounts of time studying the material.


The results show that there are context-dependency effects for newly learned meaningful material, regardless of whether short-answer or multiple-choice tests are used. For both types of test, studying and testing in the same environment was beneficial. Because testing conditions in school settings are relatively quiet, a practical suggestion based on these results is that students are likely to perform better on exams if they study for them with a minimum of background noise.

The researchers suggest that environmental context may be more important for the recognition of newly learned material than for the recognition of familiar stimuli. It is important to note that there was no overall effect of noise on performance, which supports the claims of many students that background noise does not interfere with their study. However, because of the evidence of context-dependency, students are better off studying without background noise because it will not be present during the test. Further research should examine the impact that studying to music might have on test performance.

Context-Dependent Memory for Meaningful Material: Information for Students” Applied Cognitive Psychology Volume 12, Number 6, December 1998 pp. 617-623.

Published in ERN March 1999 Volume 12 Number 3

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