September is the start of a new academic year. For many students, this means a fresh start and perhaps a chance to acquire some new study habits. Maybe this is the year you stop procrastinating until the night before the exam? Now, there’s some new evidence to explain why last-minute high-pressure cramming may not be the best way to retain information over the long term.
Imagine that you are an art thief and are planning an art theft. Under the guidance of researchers from Duke University, people played the same role in a computer game. But what they remembered about it a day later depended on the instructions they received when they started the game.
In this study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, over four hundred volunteers were randomly divided into two groups. One was motivated to act immediately and under pressure while the other was encouraged to indulge his curiosity.
“For the urgent group, we told them, ‘You are a master thief, you are committing a robbery now. Steal as much as you can!’, study leader Alyssa Sinclair told Duke University. “While for the curious group, we told them that they were a thief who is searching the museum to plan a future robbery.”
Both groups played the same game, in which they toured a museum to locate the most expensive art pieces while avoiding security guards in the game. A day later, they all received a surprise quiz to test how much they remembered from the art they had seen in the game.
Sinclair observed that the two groups scored differently on this test. “The curious group participants visualized planning the robbery, but their memory improved the next day,” he said. “They correctly recognized more pictures. He remembered how much each painting was worth.”
The imperative group, on the other hand, did very well in sports and collected the highest-valued arts. However, when he was questioned the next day, he did not remember much about the group he had been allowed to explore without pressure.
Most of us aren’t planning an art theft, so what does this discovery mean?
According to Alison Adcock, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, who co-authored the study, this shows that both high-pressure and curious modes have importance in a variety of situations.
“It is valuable to learn which mode is adaptive at a given moment and use it strategically,” he added.
If you need to take short-term action, having a high-pressure mindset can be effective. Which was shown by the Urgent Group in the game by performing better. However, if you need to retain information for longer periods of time, adopting a curiosity-driven mindset may be more useful.
So, yes, you can cram the exam the night before and do well. But if you want to remember information beyond this, it’s probably more effective if you allow yourself to explore the material with less pressure and instead be guided by curiosity.