Monday, April 28, 2008

How to Ace that Final You're Cramming For....

If you're like me, you wish every finals week that you had started studying earlier. After you take your final, you go over some of the problems you could have gotten right if you just had time to read that extra chapter or do that extra problem. Sometimes I get the feeling some of the questions on the final are common knowledge to people here at Duke; everyone excluding me of course.

Questions like: What syndrome in primates causes hyperorality, motivational agnosia, and changes in sexual and feeding behavior? A lesion to which brain region causes hemispatial neglect? If you're like me, you answered "Dick Vitale Syndrome" for the first one because you thought hyperorality meant you talked too much (it doesn't, and hopefully you're not like me).

This doesn't solve your problem, though. You need a way to cram 20 chapters of that 1347-page textbook into your head in just 24 hours. Why? Well, it doesn't matter how you got there. It was probably your fault, but you don't care about that, you're here to know: How? How do I memorize this stuff? How do I fit those 20 chapters in my sleep-deprived, McDonald's-eating brain.

Good question, here's how. The bad news is there is no easy way, but the good news is there's a better way then what you're probably doing. If you're a perfectionist, you're neatly highlighting and taking color-coded notes. If you don't care, you're just jotting down as much crap and memorizing it rote as possible. If you're smart, you could do it a different way.

First, you need to ask yourself some questions. What kind of final is it? Is it short answer for most of the questions? Do you have to know specifics? Is it an all multiple-choice test? Are you going to be writing essays? If you are, then you're fucked. Sorry. But if you have multiple choice and short answer, you're good to go. If the test is spread out through the whole book with no emphasis on earlier or later chapters, well that sucks. But we can work with that.

Second, you need to build a visual map. This works best for the sciences but if you're intelligent you can probably tweak it for something like History or Public Policy. I'll take cognitive neuroscience, the final I had today, as an example.

Neuroscience is about two things. It's about memorizing terms like extinction, abstraction, priming, or long-term potentiation. However, it's equally about memorizing specific areas of the brain, how they get their information and what they do with it. This can get very intimidating.

Now, we need to somehow take these areas of the brain (occipital, lateral geniculate, blah blah blah), combine them with pathways (ventral stream, dorsal stream, etc. etc.) and then finally integrate what it is that they do here (let you see things, let you smell things, blah blah blah). We need a visual map! We need to take this information, analogize it to something we see everyday, or perhaps know a lot about, and then label it with our areas of the brain, its functions, and pathways.

For example, if we wanted to know how the visual system worked in the brain, we could analogize it to an object or a picture of something. Let's take a vacuum; weird, I know. The retina would be the bristles, and the tube could be the optic tract. The lateral geniculate nucleus would be the HEPA filter, and then finally the posterior occipital lobes would be the vacuum bag. I just took the test, so bear with me.

I did that example in about 2 minutes, and it's very poor, but the point of this visual map system is to convert all your knowledge about the subject into a system of easily remembered objects. If you can remember one part of the chain (the bristles, in this example) it will help you remember the whole, and then you can work from there. So now everytime you think visual pathway, you'll think vacuum, and then get confused as hell. No, but you will be able to transfer something that you don't know, into something you know intimately and that is easily remembered.

Some of the finals that I did the best on, but only managed to cram for a day or two before, were the ones that I could remember pictures objects and then take those analogies with me. I didn't have to know orbital energies, chemical formulas, or resonance structures. I had these things already embedded in me, because I had memorized whole pictures from the textbook, or had ready analogies that I could visualize.

They say that the people who can memorize the most use strategies like this. One likened memorizing which card was missing from a 51 card deck, when only shown the cards for a short period of time, to a room with 52 objects in it. Each object represented a single card, and had a sticky note on it. He would mentally remove the sticky notes of each card when he saw them, which left one object at the end still left. This was his card.

So why do people who are good at memorizing just remember the cards in the deck like they are? Why not just remember that there were 3 kings, 2 queens, and a seven played, rather than taking sticky notes off of imaginary objects? Well, it's because our spatial memories are much more advanced and organized then other memories. On any given day, you're visualizing a whole lot more data then you are taking in through any other sense. You've never heard about people who have had perfect auditory memories, have you? People with so called photographic memories are the ones that can memorize sheets upon sheets of useless data to their advantage.

So, I hope you might have gleaned a thing or two from this to help you study for your final, and if so inclined you should leave a comment telling me what you think about all this.


Jason said...

Great read, man. Often the quick and dirty solution is better than the elegant one, especially when pressed for time.

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