Exam period is over and most of you are probably relaxing on a sunny beach, sipping cocktails under palm trees in this very moment. I bet, however, that if you think back at how you felt a couple of month ago, during the madness that is final exams, when sleeping was a luxury and eating at regular hours just a blurry memory from the past, you still get the chills down your spine. “I will never leave it to the last minute like this!” “I promise myself I will study all semester next year” and so on… We’ve all been there!
Then the summer goes by, the new semester starts and nothing changes. Sounds familiar?
Well, let’s be honest, you’re going to find yourself in that situation again. Panic-filled last minute revision the day before an exam is a fate that no student can avoid. But if you’ve got do it, then at least do it right.
Cramming huge amounts of information in your mind before an exam is a bit like storing lots of data in your computer’s RAM instead of safely copying it to your hard drive. It’s there, it’s readily accessible, but not for long. However, a recent study has just shown that the time of learning before going to sleep can affect your ability to store new information in your short and long term memory.
The experimental design is very straightforward. A bunch of young students were asked to learn two memory tasks. One task involved the use of declarative memory (word-pair association task) and the other involved the use of procedural memory (or motor memory, in other words they had to learn a finger-tapping sequence).
One group had to learn the tasks in the afternoon while the other had to learn them in the evening. They then had to go to bed (I know what you’re thinking, but yes, it is important to sleep even before exams!) and were tested the following days to see how much they could remember.
Results? Well, interestingly the students who did their learning in the afternoon performed better at the word-pairing exercise the following day, but didn’t do very well at the finger-tapping sequence. However, the students who had the learning session in the evening scored opposite results, being much better at the motor memory task than at the word-pairing exercise.
So, be smart about it. If you are determined to learn those two hundred names of enzymes and proteins with ridiculous names (the chemical name of the protein Titin, anyone?) the day before the exam, try to get started before 3pm. If, however, you need to learn that new difficult piece of contemporary dodecaphonic music on your trumpet, go ahead, and make sure you do it as late as possible*, just before going to bed.
* I will not be held responsible for any act of violence or physical harm that may be attributable to the ire of your furious neighbours.
If you want to find out more about short-term memory formation and why learning things at different times of the day can affect the consolidation of memories overnight, read the original article here.