In 1975, a couple of phycologists confirmed an interesting hypothesis: If you send a learner underwater in a scuba suit to memorize a list of words, they will remember those words better when tested underwater than when tested on land. But if the learner learns the words on land, they will remember them better on land than underwater. The principle became known as the encoding specificity principle; Learning content is associated with learning context (Martinez, 2010).

What are the implications of this fun experiment? If kids recall information best in the place they learned it, I guess we should make them learn everything in the same place? Maybe we can boost standardized testing scores a couple points by ensuring that when a student learns something, they get tested on this something in the very same room, desk, and room temperature in which they learned it. We could prevent students from making further associations with the outside world by drawing the shades, too.

Or perhaps instead of controlling the context, we expand students’ exposure to the content into multiple contexts, i.e. Have students rehearse math everywhere so they can perform it better anywhere. Maybe we should start seeing expert learning as effective performance across multiple contexts rather than in terms of an accumulation of knowledge in a single context.


Students come to my Design classroom twice every eight-day cycle for 65 minutes at a time. They leave their homeroom context and come to my context. Wouldn’t their education be so much richer if what they were learning elsewhere was allowed, no, meant to continue in my classroom?

Perhaps not all disciplines lend themselves to learning across multiple contexts; we don’t need students learning lists of words underwater in order to be able to improve their recall of words underwater. But in my little world of elementary Design – a subject analogous to design cycles and design thinking – the opportunities for integration are limited only by the scope of our imagination.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg


Martinez, M. E. (2010). Learning and cognition: The Design of the Mind. Upper Saddle River, NJ [u.a.]: Merrill.

4 thoughts on “Learning Lists Underwater: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Design

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