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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why we cram for tests

Throughout our academic lives, we are berated for cramming for tests. But we do it, deliberately, for a very specific reason.

Our memory is dependent on emotions. Simply put, where emotions are involved, our memory works; where no emotions are involved, our memory does not work.

The information we are exposed to in an emotional vacuum, such as if we hear it in a typical classroom or read it in a traditional text book, neurologically doesn't stick. So the behavior we have adapted is to hack our brain through the process of a) mindlessly taking notes of facts we think are going to be needed to learned, and then b) waiting until there is genuine terror at the specter of tomorrow's test, for which we are unprepared, to use that emotion to gain even 24 hours of neurological stickiness.

This hack works, as much as it often helps us get decent grades. Teachers who want "their" students to do well in standardized tests are well served, at least in a Machiavellian sense, to ratchet up the fear factor. But it has at least two consequences.

First, facts learned through this technique have only a very short half-life. As I wrote in "The Complete Guide to Simulation and Serious Games," in a comparison to learning things more experientially and aspirationally:
Students remember riding a bike forever, while forgetting what year the Magna Carta was signed five seconds before [or five second after] they need to write it on the test.
The second consequence is even more grim. Many people have emotional aftershocks - similar to low-grade post traumatic stress syndrome - associated with their academic experience/childhood for the rest of their lives. Further the memories are tainted with guilt at not having been better students.

The emotional ranges of aspiration, including love and need, provides both greater challenge and greater paybacks than the emotional ranges of fear. Test taking is an inevitable tool of any industrial education system. And fear may be the emotional equivalent of the food-additive MSG. But the long-term impact may be at odds with a healthy and productive society, not an enabler of it.


  1. Completely agree. I _still_ have dreams about school (don't we all?) - that I have gone an entire semester without studying for a class, usually chemistry or physics, and now I won't graduate. Never happened that way, but my brain still worries about it.

    There's a great book I just read called _The Invisible Gorilla_ - sort of like _Freakonomics_ but geared towards psychology. There are some eye-opening studies referenced in that book that I think you would enjoy, if you haven't read it already.

  2. Thanks for this. Great comment, and I will eagerly look up the book.