Research has show that we can often recall things better when we are in the same context as we were when we learned them. The features of our environment enrich our memory with more detail (the sounds, scents and sights around us), which act as prompts to cue recall when we try to remember that information in the same situation.
When sitting an exam in a traditional exam hall, this can work against us, as we will not be in the same surroundings (library, study bedroom etc) that we were when we were studying for the exam. Some people use ‘portable’ cues such as a particular scent they associate with studying, but generally under normal exam conditions, you have to work extra hard to find intrinsic ways to prompt yourself within the material you’re learning rather than relying on external cues.
This year, most students will be taking exams ‘at home’, in the same environment they have been studying in, and you can use this to your advantage. However, over the last year, you may have had to live in lockdown conditions or isolate yourself, or been unwell. Many people have found that this has impacted on their memory, concentration span and motivation. They’ve found that they are forgetful, their minds are prone to wandering, it’s harder to think straight or get organised and they have ‘brain fog’.
This is happening as it’s likely that your environment hasn’t changed much and days seemed very similar. There is very little variation to distinguish one memory from another, or novelty to make anything stand out as worthy of attention. Chronic boredom and monotony do not make good memories, or make you want to take notice of your surroundings. Social interaction can be stimulating, but much of our socialising has been online, which is known to be more tiring, requiring greater concentration and resulting in overload and overwhelm. We have all been living in stressful circumstances to one degree or another for a long time, and this too can wear away at our ability to focus.
This all means that material you learned during lectures and other teaching might be less easy to remember and all blurs together, and also that your revision becomes more difficult as your circumstances don’t vary enough to aid your memory or concentration.
Try to deliberately vary your surroundings as much as possible – change room or position in your room as much as possible, change something about your room by moving things around every so often, or change up the things you’re using to revise – your notepad, font or ink colour. Be a little cautious about changing the sounds around you by using music or radio – listening to music splits your attention, adds an extra load on your mental processes and means you have less awareness to focus on what you’re learning.
If you’re finding that learning really is becoming a struggle and you’re concerned at the impact on your results, do speak to your Personal Tutor or contact Student Wellbeing.