Can a well developed “short term” memory impede someone from performing well on an exam? Ironically, the answer appears to be “Yes.” A study published
in Psychological Science, a publication by the American Psychological Association, indicates that people who have a good “working memory” may not perform well during high pressure situations. In fact, the data show that their usual capability to retain facts may actually work against them under certain conditions.
Short term memory, also called “working memory” holds information that has immediate relevance to a task and helps a person to focus on it. While a good working memory may predict how well someone can learn and perform under normal circumstances, it can prove to be a liability when that individual realizes that the stakes are high, such as during a crucial exam or a standardized test.
What explains this apparent dichotomy? Parents of some high achievers are perplexed and confounded by seemingly incongruous results of college entrance exams. These honor students can perform well in class and on school exams. They can even produce high scores on practice tests. Yet they appear to be unable to duplicate their high performances when the actual test date arrives.
In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted their experiments
with undergraduate students who were characterized according to their working
memory ability. These volunteers were required to solve mathematical problems while simultaneously receiving lists of unrelated words under time pressure.
Those who had been characterized as having a good working memory
actually performed more poorly than those with a less developed working
The researchers theorized that anxiety interferes with performance, causing results that do not truly reflect an individual’s abilities. Apparently, the more an individual desires to perform well, the more his performance suffers.
The extra mental resources and capacity of someone with a good working
memory are consumed by pressure-induced anxiety. Time pressure also contributes to an already anxiety-filled situation. In fact, the researchers found that the anxiety- provoking situation most acutely affects performance in mathematics. Simply stated, the more someone’s thoughts center on the importance of the task, the less his working memory can perform necessary calculations.
These findings certainly have significant implications for colleges that use test
scores as the “first cut” or initial criterion for student selection. If these
tests are supposed to predict future college success, they may be inherently
flawed, especially with regard to students whose academic grades are not
consistent with their test scores.
How can this situation be remedied? Certainly, an attitude change would be beneficial; but achieving that end could be quite difficult, given the competitive pressure of college admissions. Stress reduction techniques such as mediation
may also help. In addition, repeated practice sessions under severe time constraints may assist the test-taker in becoming accustomed to dealing with the pressure of an actual test situation.