How to keep information in your memory for a test

daisymimi22 asks: I learn things before I take tests, but when I am writing on my test sheet, I forget everything. What should I do?

Hi daisymimi22 –

I sure do relate.  When I was getting trained, I would learn all the things I was supposed to do – “Come,” “Sit,” “Stay,” “Heel,” and such – and really have them down.  Then Handsome would take me in front of some friends of his and say, “Shirelle’s so smart!  Let me show you!  Okay, girl, Sit.”  And I’d have absolutely no idea what he was talking about!

How wildly irritating!  He’d be embarrassed, I’d feel dumb, and his friends would be condescending, like “Well she’s a cute puppy anyway, that’s enough.”  Oh how awful that felt!

So here’s the problem I had, which I imagine you’re also having.  Brains (both dog and human sorts) have sections that store different sorts of memory.  Short-term memory is really important as you’re doing things.  Imagine if you were trying to talk with a friend, but couldn’t remember what either of you said a few seconds before.  That’d be a really tough conversation for both of you!  Imagine if you got on your bicycle to ride to your grandparents’ house, but along the way, you continually forgot where you were heading to and what streets you’d already passed.  My guess is you’d never get anywhere.

But short-term memory has a lot of work to do, just keeping aware of what’s going on at the moment.  You also have long-term memory, which holds information that you need to know even if you haven’t had to deal with it in the last day or so (for example, your address, your dog’s name… or even your name!).

The problem you and I both had with those tests is that we had learned all we needed to in our short-term memory, but it hadn’t been “re-filed” into our long-term memory.  And there are a few good tricks to help you with that.

One is to memorize everything you need to know till you can spout it out all at once… and then put it aside for a day, and do the same thing again… and then a day later do it again!  Probably doing it three times will be pretty successful.  See, what works is that your brain will get very frustrated.  Let’s say that on Monday, you learn all the capitals of Europe.  Then the next day, you quiz yourself on them again, and find that you remember everything except Madrid and Berlin.  Amazingly, the next day, because you had to concentrate more on those two, you’ll remember them, but have forgotten London and Paris!  But once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll really have them all.  Because your brain will have learned it had to file this information in longer-term memory.

(One warning, though:  There are actually many levels of memory, so please don’t think that because you’re able to remember something for a couple of days, that means you won’t need to re-learn it for a big exam later on!  It’ll just be a lot easier to learn it that next time.)

Another thing I’ve seen actors do, when they have to learn lots of lines, is to learn everything forward, and then test themselves by trying to do all the words backward!  Like, to use that last sentence, “backward words the all do to trying by themselves test then and…” and so on.  It’s really hard.  And concentrating like that makes their brain really focus on every word, so they learn it all a lot better.

But I have one more bit of advice on this, maybe the most important of all:  You can mess up your short-term memory, by straining it at the last moment.  Crazy as it sounds, studies show that if you memorize a list of facts one night, and get tested on it the next morning without having thought about them at all, you’ll do better than if you do a last-minute cram-study before the test.  Somehow, last-minute studying  overwhelms the memory with short-term stuff, and reduces the amount of information you have at hand!

So, to summarize, I’m suggesting three things.  1) memorize the facts more than once, perhaps numerous times; 2) If there’s a way to do it, try testing yourself with the facts backwards as well as forwards; and 3) don’t do last-minute studying: quit when you go to sleep the night before the test.

And if you do this, daisymimi22, I’ll bet you’ll find you start doing better on tests right away.  As sure as I’m sitting here… or, wait, am I lying down, or heeling, or…?!

Good Luck!



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