How to Ace Your Exams Using Principles of Cognitive Psychology

In my cognitive psychology class, we spent a week learning about empirically supported ways of enhancing test performance and the effectiveness of studying. I found this information to be incredibly pertinent to college students like myself, so I thought I would share it with you.

The first suggestion is to try to make your studying environment as close to the testing environment as possible. A team of researchers performed various experiments to determine how environmental context can affect human memory, and found that “events are recalled best when tested in the environment where they were learned.”

In this experiment, the researchers drew 24 subjects from the University of Michigan and presented each with a list of 45 word pairs. The word pairs consisted of target words, which were high-frequency English nouns, and cue words. The cue words were designed to be “weak cues,” meaning the relation between the cue and the target was strong enough that the participant could pair the two words, but weak enough that the participant would not immediately associate the word. Some examples of word pairs were “car-BODY, smell-CABBAGE, and black-SPIDER.”

The participants were then asked to write down an association for 15 unique cue words. This process was repeated three days later. When the participants took the test in the same context that they studied in (the context varied by time of day in this experiment), they performed better than participants who took the test in a context different from the one they studied in.

How might this be helpful for you? It means that, if possible, you should try to match your studying environment to the testing environment. If you know you’re going to be taking the test in a certain room and in a certain spot, then try to study there. Try to study at the same time of day that the test will take place. And if you can’t get to the room you’re going to study in, then try to study in another classroom environment, where the orientation and lighting of the room matches the testing environment.

Your recall ability is not just affected by your environment; it is also affected by your internal state. This phenomenon is called state-dependent memory. Two researchers (Miles and Hardman, 1998) tested the influence of state-dependent memory by having a group of 24 students learn and recall a list of words while either at rest or during aerobic exercise.

The participants learned the words at rest and were tested while at rest and then during aerobic activity, or they learned the words during aerobic activity and were tested on the words during aerobic activity and then at rest.

The participants with matching learning and testing states were able to recall more words during the test, suggesting that the bodily state of an individual at the time of learning will affect their testing performance later. State-dependent memory was tested with various state alterations including alcohol consumption.

Again, how can you capitalize upon state-dependent memory? Your teacher isn’t likely to let you bring in a glass of wine to the test, so I wouldn’t recommend that you drink one while studying. However, you can drink a cup of coffee or tea during studying, and then bring that same type of drink to the test.

The last, and perhaps most important bit of wisdom I gleaned in this class is to get enough sleep. It is tempting to stay up until three in the morning, chugging 10 cups of coffee to study for your upcoming test. But you may be hurting yourself by restricting your sleep.

Sleep is vital for the consolidation of memories. Memory consolidation refers to the process that takes initially unstable representations and encodes them into a form that is less susceptible to outside interference. When subjects are asked to study a list of items and are then denied sleep, they have a lower recall rate than do subjects who are allowed to sleep.

So, to all you late-night studiers with bloodshot eyes: Bring your books to a classroom during daylight hours, remember your thermos on test day if you caffeinated while studying, and get some sleep!

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