Remember The Facts

Recalling facts or events with ease is a skill that is generally admired and rewarded. The reward may be small, such as winning a beer in a bet in our local hostelry or as large as passing your examinations to become a Harvard MBA with its promise of wealth beyond the dreams of your erstwhile school pals.

How your brain actually stores the mountain of trivia that we stuff into it and the details of the recall process, which usually digs out bits and puts them back together differently each time, makes for an interesting life’s work. But is there something we can do to fix the information most effectively? Was our parents advice to stop studying and get a good nights sleep before that crucial test good advice?

Yes it was, but so was the handful of cash promised if you got the answers right. Apparently, small rewards are good enough to help us remember. Of course we have to know up front what the deal is. The optimal test strategy is now clear after Tucker and his Harvard U team’s new paper (1).

The equal opportunity test team were 152 Harvard students, who at twenty years old are steeped in the learning – testing cycle. The test was recalling objects associated with a face from photographs of face/object pairs. The reward was a flat fee of $30 for half the lab rats and the other half had a fee of $10 plus a $1 bonus for each correct answer up to a maximal earning capacity of $40. The procedure was to learn either in the morning or in the evening. The tests were then conducted either 12 hours afterward or twenty four hours afterwards.

So, what is the optimal way to study for that test? The clear winners were the students who studied at 9 p.m. and had a good nights sleep for a 9 a.m. test, and these were also on the cash bonus track. Clearly, hungry Harvard undergrads will work for peanuts.

Learning in the morning and being tested in the following evening wasn’t very good. I guess too much junk, Twitter feeds and Facebook work was crowding out the important stuff.

Apparently the sleep period helps to fix the information. Testing after 24 hours was bad, but again sleep straight after learning for a test the following evening was still better than having a day to junk up your learned stuff.  So your mom was right after all – turn off your smartphone,  get your head down and remember the bonus.


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