Should I Study for the CPA Exam in a Coffee Shop?

cpa exam studying in coffee shop

Studying and coffee seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Therefore, studying in a coffee shop may seem like the perfect place. In fact, many students of all education levels from high school to doctoral programs study in cafes. They may like the atmosphere or the background noise, or they may need a change of scenery from their homes or offices.

But is it okay to study in coffee shops? Should you stick to the library or a quiet room in your home instead? We’ll explore what research has to say about that question, as well as how to make studying at coffee shops work for you. Finally, if you can’t actually study in a café, we’ll show you how to replicate that coffee shop ambiance at home.

Why Students Study in Coffee Shops

Students, including CPA Exam candidates, may choose a coffee shop to study in for many reasons. For instance, here are a few of the most popular benefits of studying in a coffee shop:

  • Students may feel less likely to be interrupted than they would at home.
  • Coffee shops sometimes present fewer distractions (for example, TV, video games, family/roommates).
  • Alternative study spots like libraries may be full or overcrowded.
  • Coffee shops are comfortable environments with nice chairs, good drinks, and snacks, etc.
  • Unlike restaurants, there is no expectation that customers will leave after a certain amount of time.
  • Coffee shops are often open into the late hours.
  • Many coffee shops offer perks like free Wi-Fi or free drink refills.
  • Coffee shops are open to everyone.

Studying in Coffee Shops vs. Library

First, let’s look at what research has to say about study environments. It’s safe to say that all scientists and researchers have had to do some studying to get where they are today. Therefore, researchers have a vested interest in learning how to study most effectively!

A Study Published in Applied Cognitive Psychology

In 1998, a group of researchers at Iowa State University gathered 40 subjects and divided them into four groups. Firstly, each group was asked to read an article (study) under certain environmental conditions. After that, they answered questions about that article (test) under certain conditions. The conditions were silence (quiet) or a tape with prerecorded background noise from a university cafeteria (noisy).

Group During Studying During Testing
 A  Quiet  Quiet
 B  Quiet  Noisy
 C  Noisy  Quiet
 D  Noisy  Noisy

The test asked students first to recall information about the article in short answer form, and then answer multiple-choice questions about the article. Which group do you think performed best on the test?

For both types of questions, students in Group A and Group D performed the best. Why? Because their study conditions matched the testing conditions.

Context-Dependent Memory

In short, this experiment tested context-dependent memory. We tend to remember things better when the condition under which a memory was formed is the same as when that memory is retrieved. In other words, it’s easier to remember things in the same conditions under which you learned them.

Why is this research study about coffee shops relevant to CPA candidates? First, you will answer both multiple-choice questions and task-based simulations on the CPA Exam. Most importantly, though, you will take the test in the silent environment of a Prometric exam room. Therefore, this research suggests that you should study for the test in a silent environment, too.

However, remember that a library isn’t always a completely silent environment. Often, patrons will be coming and going, and workers will be restocking shelves. If you need silence, seek out an individual cubicle or carrel to occupy. Some libraries will ask you to sign up for a specific time.

Best Practices for Coffee Shop Study

Perhaps you’re frustrated with the above research because you feel you study best in a coffee shop. Or perhaps studying in a coffee shop is your best or only option. If either of these is the case, don’t worry. You can make your study environment work for you.

Bring headphones.

A good pair of headphones can turn a noisy environment into a nearly-silent one. There are plenty of noise-canceling headphones that use sound waves to neutralize outside environmental noise. However, these can be expensive.

You can also use regular earbud headphones and a smartphone to drown out background noise. Also, many free apps will provide you with either neutral sounds (white noise, pink noise, brown noise) or soothing natural sounds to blanket over the bustle of a public location. For instance, White Noise Lite, Soundly, and Relax Melodies are all well-reviewed apps that offer a free version.

Get comfortable…

The best study environments allow you to do your work without straining your neck, wrists, eyes, or other body parts. In fact, you will hopefully forget about your body altogether as you focus on the material. Therefore, the best coffee shops for studying will have reasonably comfortable chairs, tables at the correct height, and plenty of good lighting.

Additionally, make sure you have all the materials you need at hand. You don’t want to waste time having to run back and forth to your car. If you can, choose a location that gives you enough room for your laptop and any physical study materials you may have.

…but not too comfortable.

You don’t have to sit up straight and stiff like you’re at a fancy dinner party to study well. However, slumping over can be just as bad in the long run. Remember that the goal is to avoid straining your body, and slouching can put your neck and shoulders at odd angles for long periods of time.

Additionally, many people studying for the CPA Exam are busy adults with full-time jobs, families, and many other important time commitments throughout the day. An overworked person who relaxes too deeply in a comfy chair may end up accidentally falling asleep instead of studying! Keep your goal in mind: finding a good coffee shop for studying where you can get comfortable and keep your focus.

Create a routine.

Studying is a habit, and like any other habit, it requires practice and consistency. Try to study in the same place and at the same time of day. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, it will help train your brain to go into focus mode at that time and place.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to study for hours at a time. According to UNC Chapel Hill’s Learning Center, multiple intensive study sessions of 30 to 45 minutes each, spread over weeks and months, are extremely effective. So think of studying as a series of sprints instead of one or two marathons.

Turn off your phone.

Or, at the very least, put it on silent mode. Above all, you want to avoid distractions, and your smartphone is possibly the most efficient distraction machine ever created. Of course, there may be at least a few people whose calls or texts you need to respond to immediately. For this purpose, many smartphones have a “do not disturb” feature. This will tell your phone to let messages and calls from certain contacts through while blocking all other notifications.

Similarly, and depending on whether your study materials are online, you may also want to turn off your laptop’s Wi-Fi. But if you must have your internet connected, then close any browser windows unrelated to studying. One new email notification can lead to distraction after distraction if you’re not careful.

How to Simulate the Coffee Shop Environment at Home

What if you study best in a coffee shop but are unable to travel to one? The recent pandemic has made this the case for millions of students across the world. However, it is possible to recreate the best parts of a coffee shop at home.

Recreating the Atmosphere

You may have to get creative here but think outside the box. For example, study in your kitchen or dining room, which often has good lighting and contain appropriate chairs and tables. Get out some throw blankets and pillows to soften the atmosphere and make kitchen chairs more comfortable.

You might consider playing soft instrumental music or using one of the above-mentioned sound apps to play generic crowd noise.

Choosing Your Coffee

Everyone will have a different opinion on the best coffee for studying. On the one hand, some people swear by the blend with the most caffeine to help you stay alert. On the other hand, others will say too much caffeine will make you jittery and harm your sleep, making your studying less effective.

Unfortunately, there do not appear to be many peer-reviewed, published studies on which type of coffee is the best! However, here are some things you might want to keep in mind while choosing your studying blend:

  • Keep the caffeine balanced. Trying to alter your normal caffeine intake too much either direction may throw your whole day’s schedule off. Remember that studying is best done in small doses spread out over a long period of time. Consider drinking decaf coffee if you’ve already had your daily dose of caffeine.
  • Avoid excessive sugar. You don’t want to fight a sugar crash while trying to prepare for the CPA Exam, too.
  • Give tea a try. While peppermint tea doesn’t have any caffeine, some studies have found that peppermint oil’s taste and smell can boost memory. Alternatively, if you need the caffeine, there are plenty of black teas to help keep you alert.

In conclusion, the best advice for studying is to find what works for you and embrace it. As long as you can keep your focus, the best environment for you is the one you can regularly visit for short, intense study sessions.

Research Reference

  • 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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