Where to Study?
Starting from a young age, routines are ingrained in everyday life. You go to school, go to your classroom, and then learn about the same subjects in a particular order throughout the day. Then you come home, maybe go to sports practices, eat dinner, take care of chores and responsibilities, and your homework gets done in the same spot every day; for me it was at the kitchen table. From childhood, we have usually been taught to study and do our homework in a quiet and distraction-free space, which for most people, means finding one consistent spot in their house.
While I was taking my course to become a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, I found this age-old advice to be wrong. The course and the behavior analysts I work with have constantly emphasized the importance of running trials in various settings to increase generalization in a child’s learning. This new knowledge made complete sense to me; you work to teach the basics of life skills and these skills need to become generalized so that the kids can go to school, make friends, ask for help, etc…. Sessions also require a lot of movement to allow kids to interact with each other and do different things, but you have to work on their programs, so why not continue regardless of what room you’re in?
This all made sense to me until I thought about it in the context of learning. I teach kids in different settings, but why was I not taught to do homework or study in different settings? An article in the New York Times, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits”, summarizes a study in which one group of college students studied vocabulary words once in two different rooms, and another group studied the same vocabulary words twice in one room. Both groups of students were tested, and the group that studied in both rooms performed better than the group that studied twice in the same room.
The question remains: why does it matter where you study? We were always told to study in a quiet, distraction-free space because that’s the closest we could get to a testing environment when we weren’t taking a test. This makes sense, but why does the location matter? According to the article, the brain is always making subtle associations between what you’re studying and what’s happening in the environment around you; however, when you vary the environment and hold the information constant, the information is able to make stronger connections. This is because the brain is not trying to make connections between the same information and the same environment every time you study. Similarly, varying the type of material seems to result in stronger connections than studying one skill at a time. So, if you prefer that one corner desk in the library, it’s worth switching it up to a different desk or a different corner when studying for that next test.