08 November 2011

Write yourself notes – it helps

I’m the first person to admit that I have a terrible short-term memory. Terrible. I think it used to be halfway decent, but then my senior year of college hit, and that was that. Now it isn’t uncommon for me to get halfway through a sentence and drift off halfway through, unable to recall the point I was attempting to make.

This happens with alarming frequency when I’m tutoring, at which point I typically ask my student what I was saying. What really disturbs me, however, is that most of the time my student can’t remember what I was saying either. I’m sorry, but you just shouldn’t be losing your memory at sixteen. You have the entire rest of your life for that to happen. Besides, you need to have something to look forward to in middle age!

Given how much stress most high school juniors seems to be under, though, I can’t say that this is entirely shocking. (As a matter of fact, looking back on my junior year of high school, it’s kind of amazing that I managed to hang onto my own memory as long as I did.) Which brings me to the point of this post: when you’re taking the SAT/ACT/other random test, you shouldn’t assume that your memory will automatically work any better than it was last night when you were trying to recall what that English/Physics/Spanish assignment was and had to ask your friend.

Catherine Johnson over at Kitchen Table Math has written extensively about the issue of working memory and the effects of trying to perform under pressure on the SAT. While some parts of the SAT (e.g. Math and Writing) are more directly focused on memorization-based skills, the truth is that it’s easy to forget crucial steps just about anywhere on the test. Everyone has particular things that they forget when the pressure gets ramped up — it might be a particular formula or grammatical rule, but it might also be a matter of approach. The truth is that that weak spot could be anything, and for practical purposes, it doesn’t really matter what it is. What matters is that you become 1) aware of it, and 2) are willing to take steps to address it. Writing yourself notes can play a major role in helping you overcome it.

So, for example, if you consistently forget to plug your own words into sentence completion blanks (assuming that helps you), you can write something like: PLUG IN WORDS! at the top of your page.

Or, if you always second-guess yourself and change your answers from right to wrong, you can write: DON’T SECOND GUESS YOURSELF!??Trust me, it’s more than worth spending the extra five seconds to write yourself the reminder — and you do have to physically write it, not just think it.

The reason is that halfway through a section, right at the point when you start to go into total panic mode, your memory is probably not functioning optimally (to put it mildly). You need something concrete to look at that will tell you to “LOOK OUT FOR DANGLING MODIFIERS!” Otherwise, it’s too easy to give into the fear and freeze up, overlooking specific steps you can take to get yourself working and thinking again.

You might also discover that you were looking right past something that was staring you in the face the whole time. In addition, the very act of writing the reminder is often enough to make you remember on your own. You can might even find you don’t need to look back at your notes.

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