I was talking with my parents on the phone yesterday. They are having a terrible time getting my brother to study for tests. See, the night before a test, he will sit down at the table and stare at his notes for hours on end, memorizing everything. The next day, he will go in to take his test—and despite the hours spent the night before, will still earn a sub-par grade. Sound familiar, huh?
As a psych student, I felt quite intelligent giving my parents tips to help my brother achieve higher grades. See, there are three stages in memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval. The ‘encoding’ stage is when information comes into our memory system through our eyes or ears. This information is then stored in our short-term memory. This is your temporary storage system that can only work with a limited number of items for a short period of time. After this duration is over, the information is gone. Once information is processed in short-term memory, it may be then sent to long-term memory to be permanently stored. This is the storage system that holds on to all our experiences and facts we know. As a result, this information can last for days or even decades! For information to be stored in long-term memory, it takes time because this information is stored based on meaning and how it connects to other stored information.
After the information is stored, it needs to be retrieved. Many people think that it is just important to memorize things to remember them later, but it is just as important to be able to find this information at the right time! Therefore, it is just as important to practice retrieving the facts you want to remember as it is to memorize them. This is why doing practice tests are so helpful! It forces you to actually try to remember the information you studied…and helps highlight what you do (and don’t!) know!
Let’s make this a little easier to understand. Memories are kind of like your email. Your inbox consists of your short-term memory: these are the things that you are currently working on and remembering to respond to. If your email inbox gets too full, you can forget to respond to some of those older emails! On the contrary, once we read and respond to emails, we sometimes archive them into folders such as “work” or “personal.” This is similar to your long-term memory storage. These emails will always be there for you when needed, but they are put on the backburner so you don’t need to constantly think about them. The search bar in our email is how we retrieve information. To find the right email, we need to remember the subject line to find it, otherwise we might have the email stored somewhere, but can’t access it! This is similar to retrieving long-term memories: sometimes we know we know the information, but just can’t remember it in the moment. Finally, if we delete an email, we no longer have access to its information…this is similar to when we ‘forget’ things.
So, in my brother’s case, by cramming for his test the night before, he thought he knew the material because it was in his short-term memory. However, because not enough time had passed to allow him to make meaningful connections to past classes and memories, the information wasn’t permanently stored, so when he took the test next day, he was unable to find the information he needed for the test. In the future, he really should start studying way in advance, and then take a practice test to make sure he knows the information!