Remember when you were in school and you spent hours studying for a big exam... only to forget every single thing you learned the moment the test was placed in front of you?
Turns out "choking under pressure" is an all-too-common memory phenomenon, and many of us continue to experience it in high-stress situations long after our grade-school days. In a November 2016 study published in Science, Tufts University researchers looked at the way stress affects our memories and found a technique that might help "protect" our brains from the negative effects of stress.
Known as retrieval practice, the technique is, well, exactly what it sounds like: You practice remembering things. Rather than just trying to cram information into your brain and hope you remember it later, you take in the information and then practice remembering that information — essentially like taking a practice test before taking the actual exam.
Retrieval practice is nothing new — findings in several earlier studies suggest that it could help improve memory retention in older adults, and it's been a popular learning strategy used by teachers and professors for many years.
In the study, researchers asked 120 participants to try to memorize 30 words and 30 images. All of the participants studied the words and images for a short period of time before being split into two groups: Half of the participants were given extra time to continue to look at the words and images while the other half were asked to take a practice test to recall as many of the words and images as they could, aka retrieval practice. The next day, the researchers randomly threw half of both groups of participants into stressful situations (think: give impromptu speeches or solve timed math problems), and then asked them to recall the words and images they'd studied the day before.
The results? Participants who were given extra study time and put through the stressful situations remembered fewer words and images than their non-stressed counterparts, which was to be expected. But participants who had taken the practice tests and put through the stressful situations actually remembered more words and images than their non-stressed counterparts. Cool.
How to Do Retrieval Practice
Want to give retrieval practice a try? Open this simple visual memory test in another browser window and give yourself 20 seconds to look at the images you see there. When your 20 seconds are up, look away — no peeking allowed! Take the next 40 seconds to recall as many of the images as you can. (If you can't get all of them, it's NBD!) Then, go tackle something simple on your to-do list. Do your best to focus on the task at hand and put the memory test out of your mind.
After 10 minutes have passed, take another shot at recalling those images. How'd you do? Regardless of how many you could remember, you likely did better than you would have if you just spent the full 60 seconds staring at the images.
So there you have it — a tried-and-tested method for improving your memory. Now get retrieving!