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The Encoding Specificity Principle: The Silver Lining of Remote Exams

The Encoding Specificity Principle: The Silver Lining of Remote Exams

Published on May 6, 2020

The Encoding Specificity Principle: The Silver Lining of Remote Exams
Dr. Sean Hutchins
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in the kitchen and realized I’m out of ketchup and then tell myself to pick it up the next time I’m at the store. When I’m at the store, however, it never crosses my mind to pick up the ketchup — until I walk into the kitchen and realize we’re still out of it. There’s something about being in the kitchen that jogs my memory. And this isn’t unusual. Memory is rarely perfect, and is highly dependent on contextual cues or memory tips. When it’s time to recall that memory, having those cues can give your mind a toehold, a little tip to direct you to the rest of the memory. The more cues you have available, the easier it is to remember something.

Memories are contextual

The encoding specificity principle shows that memories are linked to the context in which they are created. It states that it’s easier to recall information when you are in the same context in which you memorized or studied it. So, for example, if you study for a test in a specific room, you will perform better on that test if you take it in the same room.
The psychologist Alan Baddeley demonstrated this principle in a test of scuba divers. The divers were asked to remember lists of words while either underwater or on land. Those who studied on land remembered the words better when they were tested on land, but the ones who studied them underwater actually did better when tested underwater. This happens because the brain is taking in — or encoding — all of the information around you as potential cues for memory while you are studying. So when you have these same cues available during the test, there are more ways to recall those memories. The environment itself helps us to remember. And that’s the basic insight of the encoding specificity principle.

Sounds can cue your memory 

Moreover, this principle isn’t limited to just physical location. Other studies have shown that matching the acoustic environment you studied in can also help test performance. The noises around you can also act as memory cues. Even mental states, such as your mood, can be cues; feeling happy, sad, or nervous might remind you of other times you felt the same way.
The encoding specificity principle underlies one of the main tips I give students when they ask for advice about preparing for exams: Make your practice environment as similar as possible to the exam. Studying using practice exams is one great way of doing this, as is trying to ensure that you practice on an instrument similar to one you might use in an exam. If you plan to dress up for the exam, try practicing a few times wearing those same clothes. For younger students, I often advise that they practice with a familiar stuffed animal nearby that they can bring to the exam, which can act as a cue both for memory and emotional comfort.

The stability of home 

And this leads us to a potential silver lining. One benefit of always being at home is that the cues are remarkably stable. Students taking Remote Exams from home most likely studied at home. This means they will have more cues available to them when taking their exams. In fact, music teachers may recognize a similar phenomenon with students in their regular practice, when students tell them they performed a piece better in practice than in the actual lesson.
This isn’t to say that all students will improve because of the encoding specificity principle. Not all homes have an optimal environment, and limitations of technology can also be a factor. And of course students will always feel some pressure in any exam situation, so the cues won’t be a perfect match. But in the end, taking Remote Exams from home may help students show their true abilities in an exam situation and provide better retention of what is learned in the exam itself.

Sean Hutchins

Dr. Sean Hutchins
is a neuroscientist and the Director of Research at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from McGill University, studying music and the mind. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.