Updated: Jan 27, 2021
It often feels like a test is testing your memory more than the actual subject. Despite studying the night before or last period, it never seems sufficient. Why is that the case? Why is it that despite reading the notes just 20 minutes ago, I still have no recollection of the exam content? And ultimately, how can I improve my memory and ace the exam?
Well, memory is ultimately about storing information and recalling it. No matter how many times you read a textbook, if you can’t recall it when testing, the time you spent reading it was useless. Oftentimes, we study by reading notes, reading passages, or watching videos. These are all inefficient because you’re not working on what is most important when taking the test. Which is recalling the information you need. Realistically, you’re not reading a passage, or watching a video when taking the test. All you have is the question in front of you to cue you in. This leads to one of the best time-proven techniques in memorization: flashcards.
Whenever you stare at a flashcard term and try to painfully recollect what the definition was, you are memorizing it in the best way possible. After all, the strength of our memories is defined by how strong the neural pathways concerning those memories are. The best analogy is to think of memory as a road. Whenever you try to recollect information, you are walking down that long road to grab that memory and recall it. The more you recall the memory, and the more you walk down that road, the smoother the road gets from all the walking. Gradually, as you constantly try to recall the memory, it gets easier and easier. At this point, the information you’ve been practicing becomes a part of your long-term memory. The memory road becomes a memory highway. Flashcards are one of the best ways to pave that memory highway. Unlike rereading notes or reading the textbook, you’re forced to try to recall the information whenever you try to answer a flashcard. There’s a cue when you see the term, and any attempt to recall the definition on the other side of the card. Whenever you flip that flashcard, you’re walking down that magical information highway necessary to memorize.
It doesn’t have to be flashcards, but what’s vital is that you’re practicing recalling the vital information whenever you study for a test. What people and myself usually do wrong is doing the exact opposite, or doing it too late. As I said before, reading notes or the textbook to study is inefficient. It's only by reading the notes, covering it up, and trying to remember what you read that you are truly studying. In reality, we seldom do that, and we just reread and reread the passage to hopefully remember it. Another mistake when we study is that we do it too late. On big tests, there are many concepts and roads you have to walk to memorize. Sometimes, there’s not enough time to walk all the roads because you chose to study 20 minutes before the exam or the night before. Practicing your recall takes time, please give yourself that time. Additionally, spaced repetition, or practicing in increments over time, is scientifically proven to maximize memorization. This in part is because you give your brain time to strengthen the neural connections you are trying to make. Particularly in your sleep. This leads to my final point.
You need to be healthy, rested, and relaxed for your test. Ideally, you’ve walked down the memory road days before your exam. There’s a smooth asphalt highway system in your brain letting you confidently recall the definitions of words, body parts, or math formulas. You slept well, ate well, and you’re in tiptop shape to drive down that highway and crush the exam. Conversely, the worst thing you can do is cram the night before the test, sleep 5 hours, and be in perpetual anxiety. Maybe the memory roads are well paved, but you’re in no condition to walk down them because you’re half-awake. Simply put, it's best to be mentally healthy during an exam.
The reality is that some students have it easier than others. They have better memory, a background in the exam content, or just understand it better. Some students can get away with cramming for an exam or just not studying at all. However, by memorizing in the most efficient manner, you can close the gap between you and them. By being diligent and efficient, there is no exam that you can’t ace.