The Franklin talked to psychology professor Ryan Rush, who specializes in memory, about how students can best prepare for their final exams. This interview was edited for space and clarity.
Q: What is memory and how does it work?
A: Memory is our ability to store and use information that we’re presented with. It’s essential to almost all, if not everything, you do. From being able to get on your bike and ride it to digesting material from a textbook then recall it on an exam, memory is something that is important to essentially everything you do as a person.
Q: Are there different types of memory? If so, what are they?
A: Yes, there are a lot of different types of memory. There is what’s called explicit memory, which you can think of as your conscious memories. If you go to a party, then later you’re talking to someone about that party, you’re consciously retrieving the information so you can tell that story and think about it. The other broad type of memory is implicit memory—the information that is the stored, but on an unconscious level. It still impacts your behavior. It still impacts your attitudes, but you’re not consciously thinking about it. An example of this would be something called procedural memory. Procedural memory is your skill-based knowledge. For example, how do you ride a bicycle? When you’re a child, learning to ride a bicycle is very explicit because you have to consciously think about holding the handlebars, balancing yourself and pedaling the right and then the left. That explicit knowledge over time becomes procedural. Now, as an adult you just do it—you don’t consciously think about balancing yourself. It’s skill-base knowledge that you don’t have to think about.
Q: On a psychological note, how is memory good? How is it bad?
A: The good thing about memory is that it allows you to essentially function as a human. It allows you to hold a conversation. Without memory, we wouldn’t be able to function. Memory allows us to function in a productive way, learn new things, gain new skills and generally better ourselves. The bad thing about memory is that—and this is sort of good and bad—when we think of memory and we think of the negative side of it, we typically think of forgetting and false memories. When we forget, it can have negative consequences. For example, you forgot an assignment was due, so you didn’t do it and now that you’re penalized for not having turned in the assignment. However, the upside is that you can also update information so the ability to modify allows us to function in an adaptive way. The ability to modify is actually an adaptive quality because it allows us to update our knowledge, learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them.
Q: What do exams and tests do to memory, if anything?
A: There is research that indicates when we test ourselves, it helps us store information better and for longer periods of time. Simply testing yourself while you practice for a final exam—writing questions and actually writing out the answers—helps you retain the information for longer periods of time. Testing can actually have an impact on memory. By testing yourself, you actually have to pull the information out so you know it’s stored.
Q: How do memory and stress interact with each other?
A: The research is mixed, but what it seems to suggest is that when you’re experiencing moderate levels of arousal or stress, memory helps heighten your ability to encode information into long-term memory. If you’re really low on stress, you’re not going to encode really well, but if you’re really stressed out, like if you had a gun pointed to your head, you’re also distracted and not attending to the information. When you sort of have that moderate level of stress, where there’s enough anxiety to motivate you, that seems to be effective for encoding.
Q: How can students improve their memory overall? For finals specifically?
A: The reality is, to improve your ability to retain and access information, you have to practice strategies that researchers refer to as desirable difficulties, and the word desirable means that it’s going to have the best outcomes and difficulties. When students study, they often do what’s easy—going through your notes. It is very passive, and research shows that the best way to encode, store and retrieve information is to actually engage in practices that require more effort. But the reality is, it’s about the effort that you put in. The other thing I tell students when they’re preparing for tests is you don’t want to cram. Cramming is really bad. You are trying to take in a lot of information all at once, and you know the first set of information is going to be competing with the second set of stuff you study, which is competing with the third thing. It’s causing all sorts of interference that prevents you from actually storing the information. The best thing you can do is actually break your studying up into much smaller sections across a longer period of time. Rather than studying for six hours one night before an exam, study for six hours, but break it up into half-hour study sessions throughout the week.
Q: How can students use memory to do well on their final exams?
A: Change in performance doesn’t typically happen overnight. Keep at it. You should recognize that any improvement suggests that you’re on the right track. Build studying into your actual 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day so that you are committed to doing it. Learn from your mistakes. Talk with your professor about what their expectations for you are, and be active in your education, your studying and your learning. If you sort of sit back, things aren’t going to change.