The thing that we’ve been dreading all semester is finally coming: exams. No matter how many exams we’ve done, it’s always a nerve-wracking experience. Since our exams are probably going to be in-person, and it’s still relatively early, let me provide you some insight into our memory system so you can make the most of it.
A commonly used memory model suggests there are three parts to your memory system: sensory memory, working memory (also known as short-term memory), and long-term memory.
Your sensory memory is high in capacity but it rapidly fades unless you actively maintain the information in your mind. If you asked someone for their phone number, what they say all goes into your sensory memory, but you’ll lose it if you don’t keep the numbers in your mind. That information moves into your short-term memory as you repeat those numbers to yourself.
Your short-term memory has limited capacity and can only hold about seven things at a time. But, you can maintain information in there for a longer time than in your sensory memory through techniques like repeating the numbers. These numbers can remain in your short-term memory for as long as you do this, until you no longer need them.
These numbers may also enter your long-term memory if people keep asking you for that person’s number. Your long-term memory has no known upper limit. However, it’s often fallible because you can easily change it. When you retrieve information from your long-term memory, there is a risk that you’ll bring out incorrect information simultaneously, as memory components are reconstructed at the time of remembering. This could result in you misremembering the information again later.
You can retrieve information from your long-term memory through recall and recognition. Recalling information brings it out of the long-term memory intentionally, whereas recognition brings information out of the long-term memory to compare it with new information, which may not have been accessible without external help.
That’s partly why multi-choice questions are much easier to answer than essay questions. Recall is harder because it requires information to be found, retrieved, and recognised as correct.
So, how can we improve our recall for things like exams?
When information enters our brains, the serial position effect happens. For example, when you hear words presented in a list, words earlier in that list are stored into your long-term memory, and words later in that list are stored into your short-term memory.
However, words in the middle of that list will most likely be lost. This is because the first few words have been encoded into your memory, and the recent words can be maintained through short-term memory techniques.
This reflects content you learn in class. You’re most likely to remember things you’ve learned earlier because it would’ve been repeated throughout the course, and you’ll likely remember the things you’ve just learned. But, the things in the middle will be a bit hazy, so it’s a good idea to start your revision there.
To improve your memory and recall, you have to learn things multiple times. This helps to slow the decay in your memory on the topics you’re trying to remember.
Moreover, as you’ll probably be writing your exams by hand, it’ll be beneficial for you to handwrite what you revise so the muscle memory of you writing your answers can be encoded into your long-term memory. Engaging with your notes and lecture materials also allows your brain to encode information more deeply than simply passively rereading information.
I hate to say it, but this is why it’s important to start exam preparations early.
Illustration by Kiki Hall