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Varying study locations could improve content retention, psychologists say

Published: Thursday, October 7, 2010

Updated: Thursday, October 7, 2010 06:10

Tisch Library

Tien Tien / Tufts Daily

Studying in your favorite library spot all the time could hurt your retention of study material. Above, an individual reads in Tisch Library.

For many students at Tufts, an upcoming paper or exam means holing up in Tisch Library for an all−nighter. But as midterms approach, they may do well to reconsider: Psychologists find that changing study locations every so often can actually help improve information retention.

Psychologists have been aware of this discovery since 1978, according to the news source Psychology Today, but educational institutions and students alike have been ignoring the useful advice since its unearthing.

The benefits of moving around while studying has to with the brain's formation of subconscious associations between the subject matter being studied and the specificities of the site. So if you limit yourself to The Rez, your brain might associate your Hebrew vocabulary words with bright red lights, or if you prefer the library basement, you might only be able to spit out historical dates in the presence of deep purple walls.

But forcing the brain to associate particular study materials with many different settings may help it to retain that information in general, psychologists say.

It is for this reason that senior Lucas Schlager makes sure to study in multiple locations.

"[Even] that 10 minute period of time when you're lying in bed but aren't ready to get up and don't want to feel completely useless," he said.

Schlager finds that the use of flashcards makes moving around practical and easy. He uses an iPhone app called Mental Case, which shuffles cards users get wrong back into the virtual deck, to review class material whenever and wherever possible.

"During boring conversations, you can just surreptitiously do flashcards," he said.

Psychologists also find that working on related but different skills sets in a single study session may also improve material retention.

Sophomore Simone Rabinowitz puts this advice to practice in her own study habits.

"I know people who will only study one subject or just vocabulary in one sitting, but I switch it up a lot," she said. "I get to the point where attention just for vocab wavers off. I guess I just get easily bored, but I definitely feel like I need to switch it up a lot."

Some students, however, reject psychologists' advice and find that changing location or subject while studying actually distracts them.

Rabinowitz, for one, does not feel that changing her study location increases her effectiveness. A self−described "creature of habit," she prefers to return to the same desk in the quiet area of Tisch Library each time she studies.

"You've got to select a place that's not rambunctious and that's away from your friends," she said. "The good thing is when I need a break, which is quite often, I isolate myself, but then I get up and find people so I can breathe for a moment. A lot of people call it ‘Club Tisch,' but I can focus if I get out of the conversation area."

Junior Ryan Rifkin explained that moving around helps him study — to a degree. A certain amount of change is beneficial, he said, but returning to a number of familiar locations helps him focus, so long as he does not limit himself to one of those locations all the time.

"I divide most of my studying time between Eaton, my living room" or Diesel Café in Davis Square, he said. "Moving around definitely helps you remember things in different contexts, but [I] also get really antsy in the same space. When I'm in my house, my bed is too comfy for me to resist. I go out so I can focus, and I move around so I don't get bored and fidgety."

Timing also plays a factor in retention, psychologists have said. While they admit that cramming can result in short−term retention, they also point out that information is just as easy to pack in as it is to lose.

Rifkin, who has been given this advice in the past, believes in studying over a long period of time, devoting short spurts of time over a week to a given subject.

"I usually like to split up studying for tests and quizzes," he said. "For a quiz, I'll study for an hour on two different days, and for a midterm, I like to spread it out over three or four days, an hour and a half each day."

"One of the best pieces of advice I received before my freshman year is that school is your nine−to−five job," he said. "If you're not in class, think of it as an eight−hour work day. That amount of time you're not in class, you should work; that helps things not pile up. That idea has helped me focus a lot, and I always have more than enough time to get my work done."

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