Exam panic

Imagine you are taking an exam that you crammed for that day at the library. You spent hours memorizing your notes and feel confident until you start answering the questions. You realize that you know what page the answer is on in your notes and just can’t visualize it. This is frustrating because you are completely remember the beginning and the end of your notes.  In this blog post I am going to explain why this phenomenon occurs. I will also give a study strategy to prevent this issue.

This frustrating situation that we all have experienced is best explained by the modal model theory. This was created by Atkinson and Shiffrin. This theory was studied when someone was presented with a list of words, one word at a time, equally spaced apart. When they were asked to list the words that they remember, they always remember the first and last words and forget the ones in the middle. When this is graphed it looks like an inverted bell curve. The reason for this odd distribution of memory is best explained by the primacy and recency effect.

The primacy effect is why you remember the beginning of the information that you studied. This is because you are just at the beginning so you aren’t trying to remember as much information. Therefore you have more time to dedicate to each concept; processing it, making sure you understand it, and repeating it to yourself (rehearsal). All of this deeper processing you are using to learn it, transfers it from working memory to long term memory. So, when you are sitting taking your test you can recall it no problem!

If you are cramming right up to the time of the test you will likely also remember the end of your notes. This is called the recency effect. This occurs because all the information you just read is still available in your short term memory. You have to be careful though! If you do a mentally complex task in between studying and the exam you will likely forget the information you are trying to remember. Because the information is just in short term memory and no deeper processing was performed to transfer it into long term memory, it is easily displaced or lost. You have no chance of recalling it.

The study strategy I propose to prevent forgetting the middle of your notes would be studying it more in advance and breaking it up into pieces. This way you can move slower through the material and have more time in between concepts. This extra time in between gives you the opportunity to rehearse the information and do some deeper processing so that it is transferred into long term memory. Because the information in the middle of your notes is in your long term memory now you will better be able to recall it during the test. Also if you review your notes before the test make sure to just relax between that and the test or the information will likely leave your working memory.


my notes from class

picture: https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&id=53A4378FB0B00FD2E4C39E1DB892B33FDB5C3392&thid=OIP.pmMpFpvMzr-q1db3ci4mhQHaFj&exph=600&expw=800&q=exam+stress&selectedindex=6&vt=0&eim=1,2,6

3 thoughts on “Exam panic

  1. wharris2

    As a college student, I tend to push studying off until the last few days so I can related to this post. It is definitely a frustrating trait that I have and I am trying to work on it. In saying this, do you have any tips on being able to prevent forgetting the middle of your notes when you are cram studying the day before the exam? I personally, try to take breaks during the day to help with cognitive fatigue and to remember what i just studied but I typically seem to forget some parts of my notes anyways.

  2. hmckeen

    I enjoyed reading your post! Students are told time and time again to prepare for exams in advance and avoid waiting until the night before, and it is interesting to learn about some of the cognitive principles behind this advice. Consistent with this advice, I always remember much more of the material I’ve studied if I do it a little bit at a time over a longer stretch of time. In addition to this, waiting until the night before a big exam is greatly anxiety inducing which, at least for me, tends to lead to poor test performance. The study strategy you offered also ties into our recent class discussion of the benefit of self-testing when attempting to commit information for an exam to memory. The additional time to rehearse the information and process it at a deeper level also allows you time to make flashcards or test yourself in another way. When used together, these study techniques give students the best chance at success on exams. Great and helpful post!

  3. sbalenger

    I can definitely relate to this post. We are constantly told to begin studying for the next test right when the new material starts, but for many people that’s not easy to do. We get caught up in other assignments and studying for other classes and end up putting new material off until it’s time to take the next test, leading us to cram. I usually try to get ahead at the beginning of the semester, but somehow time always catches up with me and I manage to get behind and thrown into this seemingly endless cycle. What’s ironic, is that we all understand why it’s so awful to cram at the last minute, yet many of us continue to do it anyways because we don’t know how to break this cycle.

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