On Campus

Hidden secrets of academic success

What you can't see might hurt you.

While conscious efforts to maximize the quantity and quality of studying may indeed be important to meeting your full academic potential, there are many factors that influence academic success beyond your immediate awareness. Two such factors are perhaps especially relevant during this time of year as exams approach and as soon-to-be former freshmen choose roommates to live with next year.

The first is known as encoding specificity. Firmly established by Canadian neuroscientist Endel Tulving, this phenomenon states that recalling previously learned information will be most effective when the context in which you learned it is replicated. Thus, students who write a test in a room very different to the room in which they learned the information (or studied it), will do worse on the test than if the rooms were similar.

Encoding specificity can also be important in mental states, with research even showing that information learned while drunk can be better recalled when drunk! While it probably isn’t a good idea to study and write your finals while inebriated, the principle is more practically applicable by realizing that even just imagining the context in which you learned something can help you recall it. A good review of some research into this phenomenon can be found here.

A second influence on your academic success that may remain beyond your awareness is your roommate. Working with freshmen at Darthmouth College, where students are randomly assigned roommates, economist Bruce Sacerdote found that students’ GPAs were significantly influenced by the GPA of their roommates (see the report for all the glorious mathematical details). While planning who to live with next year, it is advisable to choose smart people.

And thus continues the unrelenting struggle to balance future concerns (academic success) with more immediate pleasure (living with/near more carefree and fun loving friends), all the while keeping an eye on those influences that aren’t as immediately apparent… such is the nature of university life.