By Jordan Feger and Cassandra Gherardini
So you think you know how to study. You think that because high school was such a breeze that you must have stellar study habits and practices, right? You must have it all figured out already, right?
Welcome to college.
You see, college is hard. No matter where you go or what major you have, college is worlds away from any sort of high school education. All those study methods and habits you thought worked so well don’t exactly compute with the oodles of homework, tests, and term projects piled on your plate.
So you get to college and it feels like your brain is going to explode with all of the tasks you have to complete in addition to actually attending and paying attention in class. It feels like your brain is full; you can’t possibly fit any more information in there.
Well, here’s the thing, that feeling that your brain is full, you have this concept called working memory to thank for that.
Working memory is very similar to the familiar idea of short-term memory, but working memory is the portion of the memory processes where either new information, or information pulled from long-term memory, is manipulated and processed (1). A simple example of the function of working memory is when you solve a double-digit addition problem in your head; you have to hold onto the remainder of the single digits added together while you solve the rest of the equation.
Now, there’s a trick with working memory. It’s the general assumption that there’s no limit to the amount of memories we can contain, right? Well, working memory actually does have a capacity (2). There’s no way to officially determine the amount of cap space available for working memory (it’s not like you can calculate that a particular person has 1.21 gigawatts worth of memory space). But, generally, students can be sorted into the categories of high capacity working memory and low capacity working memory (3). This essentially means that some processes and reasoning tasks use up more available space in working memory, leaving less space for other tasks.
And, here’s the kicker, there seems to be no way to truly improve or expand your working memory space, if you have been cursed with a lower working memory capacity.
But don’t go jumping for joy just yet if you believe you’ve been blessed with a high capacity in working memory. The results of recent psychological studies indicate that in high pressure situations (like a college-level test or final exam), performance was almost identical between high capacity working memory participants and low capacity working memory participants (4). We’re all in the same boat when it comes to exams we “forgot” to study for.
But, and all of your previous teachers may have been onto something here, the basic idea behind making working memory work more in your favor is: PRACTICE.
To help explain this, there’s this psychological term called automaticity. Yes, it sounds really fancy, but it just means when a skill or procedure is mastered so well that it no longer requires conscious, effortful cognitive processing (4). To make it even simpler, this means that practice could actually mean perfect. What practicing different tasks as a student (be it arithmetic, unit tests, etc.) does is it makes it easier to connect different concepts in your memory, binding them together, simplifying remembering bigger chunks of information (2).
Within working memory, there are three subdivisions of the processes memories and information here can go through: the phonological loop, the visuo-spatial sketchpad, and the central executive (1).
First is the phonological loop, where verbal and auditory information is held and processed. According to a recent psychological study, adults with normally functioning memory systems have more durability for verbal/auditory information than they do for visual information (4). For a new college student, this means that repetitive remembering (in the phonological loop) creates stronger memories and stronger bonds between related information.
The visuospatial sketchpad holds and manipulates information of the visual and spatial variety (as you probably could’ve guessed). An interesting thing to note for all you college newbies out there, it actually inhibits your working memory load to combine rehearsal from the phonological loop while trying to hold onto information from the visuospatial sketchpad (5). From this, I suggest you utilize verbal and auditory rehearsal to practice material, since this portion of working memory takes up less of the available space in working memory capacity, allowing you to manipulate and process more information at once.
What this also means, is that if you’re trying to balance a task that requires the visuospatial sketchpad (say, for instance, watching the next hit Netflix television show) while also working on a task that requires the phonological loop (like studying your notes for your big test in two days that you do not feel prepared for at all), you’re probably not going to retain as much of your study material as would want. This is because it becomes very hard for your brain’s working memory to hold on to information in the phonological loop while also trying to hold onto images in the visuospatial sketchpad (5). So your mom was right all along about watching TV and doing homework (or rather, not doing homework).
Finally, the central executive is the big boss in charge of controlling both of the aforementioned parts of working memory (1). Unlike boss Ron Swanson of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, the central executive delegates the amount of working memory capacity dedicated to different tasks from either the phonological loop or the visuospatial sketchpad, thus actually getting things done. Now, the central executive, like Ron Swanson, is not without faults. It does not always give more focus to the task of greater importance (3). For instance, even though studying and practicing for that huge psychology test you have the next day might be at the top of your priority list, your central executive might give more attention to that hilarious episode of Parks and Recreation you’ve been trying to only listen to in the background of your studying.
So when you leave all of your studying until just before the impending doom of a unit test or a final exam, all you’re doing is hoping your brain is very good at consolidating all that information into long-term memory, or hoping that you can keep all your material spaced perfectly in your working memory until you’ve finished your test. Now you know, there’s no secret to studying faster and still retaining what you’ve learned, it really is, just practice, practice, practice.
1.) Baddeley, A. (2010). Working memory, thought, and action. Oxford: Oxford UP.
2.) Cowan, N. (2016). Working memory capacity: classic edition. New York: Routledge.
3.) Levin, E. S. (2011). Working memory: capacity, developments and improvement techniques. New York: Nova Science Publisher.
4.) Dehn, M. J. (2011). Working Memory and Academic Learning: Assessment and Intervention. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
5.) Sims, V. K., & Hegarty, M. (1997). Mental animation in the visuospatial sketchpad: Evidence from dual-task studies. Memory & Cognition,25(3), 321-332. doi:10.3758/bf03211288