It seems like age-old advice to find a quiet, clean space and stick with it to do real studying. But cognitive scientists are finding that varying your environment while trying to learn helps you retain knowledge.
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A New York Times article on learning and study habits picks apart many of the truths that teachers and parents have held as self-evident through the years, including the ideas of "learning styles" (visual, auditory and the like) and the concept that everyone should have a dedicated study area:
... Many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms - one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard - did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.
The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colours the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.
"What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting," said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.
So students and restless coffee-shop wanderers can take comfort in knowing that their avoidance of the standard space is actually helpful, and the rest of us can consider taking breaks and changing up the scene more often when we feel chained to our desks.