Context-Dependent Memory

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Do students perform better when tested in the same environmental conditions?

This is a small-scale research project I have conducted in my classroom.

Students will perform better in examinations and classroom assessments if they study for them with a minimum of background noise. Why? well, the fact that there is evidence for context-dependency which suggests students are better off studying without background noise as it will not be present during actual testing.

What is context-dependent memory?

Context-dependent memory is not a specific type of memory per se, but instead it refers to the improved memory performance when individuals are tested in the same context in which they learned the tested material.

For example, imagine a teacher is giving permission for all students in a lesson to work with headphones on; the students insist that by listening to music whilst they complete secondary research for a history project, that they will behave and concentrate better. I know in the past as a younger teacher, I have a) agreed b) undermined school policy (i.e. no digital devices to be used in class) and c) assumed the student is digesting the information to help with their classwork/revision.

There is an assumption from the individuals that a) the belief they can concentrate better, b) that their classroom behaviour will be better c) that students will complete the work to a good standard and d) most of all, they [the student] is learning.

Research says:

Well, according to a study by Grant et al., (1998) that focused on context-dependent memory (a case study in AS OCR Psychology exam), students would be better off being tested in the same conditions. For example, if sitting in an exam to reference prior research and analyse sources A and B, the students’ performance would be better if they complete the test in the same conditions i.e. on a laptop, listening to music with headphones on versus the conditions in which they are tested i.e. an examination hall, table and chair.

Below are the results from Grant’s research. You can click on the image to read the full report or read on to see what research I conducted in my classroom.

Grant et al. (1998) Evaluation Context Dependent Memory

Context-Dependent Memory for Meaningful Material (Grant et al, (1998)

Results suggest participants in all groups spent roughly equal amounts of time studying the material. Therefore reading time was used as a co-variable in the analysis of test performance. Statistical analysis of the  results suggest there a significant effect of studying and testing in the same conditions. (Grant et al)

In the classroom:

Research and psychology fascinate me, but I am no expert. Therefore I use it with caution in my classroom. With Grant’s research in mind, I decided to conduct my study after two small-scale events took place in my day-to-day teaching last month.

  1. In one of my coaching observations, a psychology teacher was discussing this research paper with their year 13 students (18 years old). I found the paper fascinating and decided to go away and read it.
  2. What happened in the following week was a fascinating coincidence and has triggered this blog post; during a revision lesson in my class, a student asked to revise with their headphones on.

One month later, I have now marked their first assessment papers. Take a look at this sample which compares two students in a year 10 (aged 14) graphics (design technology) class.

Year 10 Graphics Exam Paper

Click to open


  1. Student A (left): Pupil premium; Stretch (gifted and talented); reading age 13.11; EAL stage D; higher ability student. No headphone request.
  2. Student B (right): Pupil premium; reading age 12.01; EAL student stage M; higher ability student. Headphone request.


The evaluations from Grant et al research and the work in my classroom shows:

Validity: their were strict controls during the classroom assessment by @TeacherToolkit; prior to the assessment, three students *requested to use headphones whilst revising and researching in class. The control measure of wearing headphones, although it increased the internal validity of Grant et al study, it somewhat decreased the external validity of the study because it is not common to wear headphones in silence.

Reliability: the effects of context and memory are likely to happen again in the future, however, the small study makes it difficult to gauge the reliability of student A versus student B outcomes.

What is interesting, is if students who make ‘headphone requests’ to study at home and in other subjects, revise for assessments in this way, which is in direct opposition to examination conditions.


*all requests to wear headphones for the study were denied.

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