Sure, walking naked through the cafeteria is traumatic, even when it’s only happening in your subconscious. But there’s another high-school nightmare, a less outlandish one, that’s scary precisely because it’s so much more realistic: You walk into class on test day, sit down with the exam in front of you, and … nothing. You put in the study hours, made your flash cards, squeezed in a morning cram session, and it still feels as though your memory’s just been wiped clean.
Most of us call it choking under pressure. Psychologists call it a depletion of working memory, the cognitive function that keeps relevant information within easy mental reach — and a function, to no one’s surprise, that stress has been shown to hinder. If this hits a little close to home, though, here’s some good news: New research offers some tips for “stress-proofing” your memory.
In a study recently published in Science, 120 volunteers were each given time to memorize a list of 60 items. When that time was up, half the volunteers were allowed to keep studying, while the other half engaged in “retrieval practice,” attempting to recall as many items as they could. The following day, the researchers threw some of their subjects into stressful situations, asking them to deliver an impromptu speech or solve timed math problems, and then tested their memory of the list from 24 hours earlier; others served as a control group, completing a separate, non-stressful task before the memory test.
Unsurprisingly, among the volunteers who had been given additional study time, the stressed-out participants remembered fewer words on average than their more chilled-out counterparts. For members of the retrieval practice group, though, the stress actually appeared to help rather than hurt, giving participants a slight edge in the number of words they were able to recall.
The lesson here, according to the study authors, is twofold: One, taking practice test after practice test will be more effective than just going over the information; and two, classes where all or most of your grade depends on a single test are kind of a cruel way to measure learning. “Our one study is certainly not the final say on how retrieval practice influences memory under stress, but I can see this being applicable to any individual who has to retrieve complex information under high stakes,” co-author Ayanna Thomas, a psychology professor at Tufts, said in the study’s press release. “Especially for educators, where big exams can put a great deal of pressure on students, I really encourage employing more frequent low-stakes testing in context of their instruction.” And for those of you stuck sweating it out in a pressure cooker of a classroom, at least there’s this consolation: Some research suggests that the people most likely to choke also tend to be the smartest.