Environmental context and human memory

Author: Steven Smith, Arthur Glenberg, Robert Bjork

Year: 1978

Paper Description

This study was designed to examine the effect of environmental context on recall and item (knowledge/information) recognition. In particular, the authors sought to clarify the precise nature of context (which at the time was being used much too generally in the academic literature) and its imact on item retrieval. Through five experiments, a comparison was made between different contextual factors as well as different environmental settings and relationships. These included variability between input and recall environments and consistency between input and recall environments.

Key Takeaway 1

Environment has an effect on the likelihood of item recall (retrieval) when semantic context is varied. When the input environment was varied (input on the knowledge to be retrieved took place in two, markedly different, environments) the probability of retrieval rose significantly when compared with those who received input in the same environmental context.

Key Takeaway 2

Environment has an effect on retrieval processes. A phenomenon highlighted by the absence of an effect on recognition in these experiments. Taking a test in the same place input was received can have a positive effect on performance in that test.

Standout Quote

“An interesting feature of these experiments is that the incedental nature of the relations between environmental contexts and the to-be-learned material produced such potent effects.”


memory, retrieval practice, cognitive science, brain, learning, remembering, knowledge, maintenance, thinking, forgetting, disuse, recognition, environment, environmental context, context, cognitive psychology, encoding