Studying in Coffee Shop vs Library: Does It Make a Difference?

Studying in Coffee Shop vs Library: Unexpected Finding

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studying in coffee shopMany of us prefer studying in coffee shops, but the happy and bustling environment reduces our productivity… or so it seems.

Is it really the case? Let’s look at this research from Ohio State University.

Research on Revision under Different Environment

Participants were asked to review an article. To simulate the study mode, they were allowed to underline and make notes as they wished. After the “revision”, participants were given a test about the article.

They were divided into 4 groups according to different environment during study and during the test:

  • Quiet environment e.g. library
  • Noisy environment e.g. student canteen
Group During Studying During Testing
 A  Quiet  Quiet
 B  Quiet  Noisy
 C  Noisy  Quiet
 D  Noisy  Noisy


When tested in a quiet environment, Group A performed better than Group C. This is pretty much expected.

Interestingly, when tested in a noisy environment, Group D performed better than Group B. The group studied in noisy environment did better!

The Context-Dependent Memory

The above phenomenon can be explained by “context-dependent memory”. Humans perform better when the context present at encoding and retrieval is the same. In layman terms, we remember better when the environment of studying and testing is the same.

When we lose a wallet, we often “retrace our steps” to determine the possible places. This is a classic application of context-dependent memory.

Implications on Our CPA Exam Preparation

In light of this, it is best to study in an environment similar to the testing center. Starbucks is more lively and happy, but if I want to pass the exam, I might stick with the library, study room or anywhere that resembles the very quiet Prometric center.

Onto the Next Topic…

Everyone said a study plan is crucial to exam success, but it is such a hassle and down right impractical for me. Is there a way out?

Read this post in our Brain Power Series on exam preparation…

Research Reference

  • Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and under water. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 325-331.
  • Grant, H. M., Bredahl, L. C., Clay, J., Ferrie, J., Groves, J. E., McDorman, T. A., & Dark V. J. (1998). Context-dependent memory for meaningful material: information for students. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12, 617-623.
  • Smith, S. M., & Vela, E. (2001). Environmental context dependent memory: A review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 8, 203-220.

About the Author Stephanie Ng

I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!

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