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State Dependent Learning

I remember how fascinating I thought the whole idea of state-dependent learning was when I first heard of it as a second-year undergraduate in a Cognitive Psychology class. For those of you who haven’t taken Cognitive Psychology, state-dependent learning is the principle that you will remember much better if your state of recall is closely matched to your state of encoding. The example given was the memory tests given in scuba gear. When the divers learned something at the bottom of the university swimming pool, they could recall it much easier if they were tested on the information at the bottom of the pool than if they were tested on the information in a classroom sitting at desks. The take-home message (at least for me as a student at the time) is that you need to study for your exams in a state as close to the state that you will be taking the exams as possible. Doing this will maximize your performance and give you the highest grade.

Now that I find myself focusing on learning, I realize that this is the worst possible strategy for learning.

Learning in formal education should be about preparing a person for what they need to know for their chosen profession. If the program isn’t about professional training, learning should, at least, be about accumulating knowledge that will aid in critical analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making (all of which need a solid content base from which to work). It is doubtful that many critical decisions or rational problems are going to be solved by today's professionals in rooms that resemble exam halls.

State-dependent learning might improve performance, but it does nothing to build an appropriate content base that a learner can draw on in the future to successfully engage in what the world needs the most – thinking.

If our goal is to build a content base that a graduate can draw on when they need to make decisions and analyze information, we need to change how we teach and assess information. Both the teaching and assessment need to take place in a variety of “states” in terms of settings, rooms, and situations. Making a rational decision in a windy field with a group of engineers and contractors is much different from making the same decision in a group setting gathered around a boardroom table, which is much different from making the same decision hunched over a computer in an open-plan office cubicle. And, yet, students quickly learn to maximize their exam performance potential by matching their encoding settings to their recall settings – thereby hampering their ability to recall any of the information in any of the settings they are really preparing for – REAL LIFE!

The scholarship of learning says that we should both study and recall information in a variety of settings in order to maximize the probability of being able to recall the information in whatever setting is required in the future.

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