GUEST POST: A Student’s Guide to Conquering Exams
By Jessica Mokler
Jessica graduated Cum Laude from Rhode Island College in May, where she majored in psychology. She is pictured here at her graduation ceremony with Dr. Megan Smith. She recently took Dr. Smith's Cognitive Psychology course, and she originally wrote this blog for an assignment in the course. Jessica plans to seek employment to gain experience for a couple of years, and then return to school for her Master's in psychology.
As a college student, I am very familiar with that overwhelming feeling of, how am I going to remember all of this information for my exam? I think we have all at some point felt like we really wanted to do well on a test, tried really hard, and still didn't get the grade we wanted. Well, does this mean that we aren't any good in that class? Does it mean that we can't "do" college? Or, does this simply mean that we need to become aware of how to be successful while studying, and again when actually taking the test? After all, clearly the amount of time we have spent studying doesn't help (1), so what are we doing wrong?
First, we need to know what memory is, in order to know how to remember. Memory refers to a range of skills and abilities that are learned in the past, in order to help us adapt in the present or future. Memory can be broken down into 3 categories: episodic, semantic and procedural (but see this blog post for even more categories).
Episodic memories are past experiences that you can remember happening; if the memory is particularly vivid, you can mentally imagine the event in your mind like an episode of your own life is playing in your mind (though it’s important that this episode may contain as much false, imagined information as true information about what really happened!).
Semantic memory refers to the facts and concepts that you just know, without being aware of how you came to know them. For example, you know birds fly, you know the sky looks blue, you know what a dog is. If I were to ask you where the president lives, you could easily say: "the White House." If I asked you how you know, I can confidently predict that your response would be something like: "ummmm.........."
Procedural memory refers to the skills that you can perform, without requiring you to be able to think about how you do them. Tasks like using a fork, drinking out of a straw, writing, running, talking are all procedural memories.
So, looking at these types of memories and skills, it is clear that at some point we learned them. Ok, so there is hope that you can successfully learn the information needed to pass your exam! Let's figure out how.
There are three stages that are extremely important for learning to be expressed. The first stage is encoding, which refers to the way in which the information actually gets into the brain. We need to figure out how to process the information in such a way that it actually gets absorbed. The next stage is storage, which refers to the brain's ability to keep that obtained information available over time. Finally, the retrieval stage is the way that the information is accessed from storage. So, the information is in the brain, it is kept over time, and now we need to be able to get it back out so we can use it.
Am I not getting a better grade because I'm not getting the information in properly, is it getting lost, or is it in there and I just can't get it back out?
Well, seeing that the first step in the process is encoding, we need to make sure that we are not only getting the information in, but that we are doing so in such a way that will allow us to get it back out later when we need do. To access the information that we need, we use retrieval cues. Retrieval cues are prompts, questions or clues that allow us to focus on the right thing. Retrieval cues trigger our brains to recall the stored information.
Unfortunately, professors and college educators do not usually provide us with the actual exam questions before the test. So clearly, we can't use those specific questions as our retrieval cues. We can't study them along with the subject material, so that when we read the exam question, we are triggered to recall the information. Have you ever studied for a multiple-choice exam, thinking you would be able to identify the correct answer when you saw it? But when you took the test, all the choices looked like they could work as answers? On a multiple choice exam you might not know what the correct answer is by looking at the possibilities, but you might be able to eliminate A, C, and D as possible answers, successfully choosing B. In order to be able to do this, we must deeply process the information we are studying.
We need to think in depth about the significant meaning of the target (this could be a vocabulary word, a topic/concept, etc.). We can think about what the target is related to, create a mental image, and familiarize ourselves with ways to discriminate it from what is incorrect. We can organize the information based on subtopics, categories, or features. Basically, think in as much depth as possible so that all elements of the target can be meaningfully processed. This elaboration will help you to better remember what you need to because your brain is forming connections and building on your own prior knowledge. This is why it doesn't matter how long you are studying for – if you aren't processing the information in a meaningful way, you're really just wasting time (2).
For all you crammers who study the night before your morning exam for hours, and hours, and hours: spacing out your studying really does make a difference! This is because when you encode information more than once, it gets re-activated. The more it is activated, the better it is stored. However, there is no magic number of repetitions that you will need in order to make something stick. It is more about having information reactivated in a significant way. When you just re-read the same material over and over again, your brain isn't going through the same level of deep processing- it doesn't have to, as you just read it! If I told you a fact and 5 minutes later asked you what it was, you would remember it easily because I just told you. If I asked you 5 days later, you would have to think about it again. In the same way, when you study the same material for hours in one night, that information isn't really getting a significant boost.
If the way you study affects how the information is stored, and how it is stored affects your ability to retrieve it, then essentially if we study the right way, we can find a way to access the information. By deeply processing the information, spacing out studying, and creating your own retrieval cues, perhaps you will see a difference in your exam scores.
(1) Nonis, S. A., & Hudson, G. I. (2010). Performance of college students: Impact of study time and study habits. Journal of Education for Business, 85, 229-238. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08832320903449550
(2) Kember, D., Jamieson, Q. W., Pomfret, M., & Wong, E. T. (1995). Learning approaches, study time and academic performance. Higher Education, 29, 329-343. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF01384497