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Sep 14 2008

Importance of Working Memory for MCAT Success

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Author: Dr. James L Flowers
Category: MCAT Prep Tips

There are three generally accepted levels of human memory: 1) immediate memory (IM), 2) working memory (also called short-term memory) (WM) and 3) long-term memory (LTM). Let’s focus on the role of WM.

MCAT importance of WM:1) retrieving critical info at the time of the test, 2) storing critical info during your study.

At test-time, the effective use of your WM is crucial. WM has a small capacity, possibly 5-9 bits of info possible, and a short retention, possible 20 seconds or so. Why is it important with these significant limitations? When you are faced with a question on the MCAT, the processing begins in your WM. To solve that question, you must bring additional bits of data/info into your WM. So, a first step is to determine what additional info is needed to solve the question. Sometimes this info is found in the passage, call it Passage Knowledge (PK). Other times that info will be based on your prior study, call it Study Knowledge (SK). So, to solve the question, all of this critical info has to be in your WM. The PK is found by skimming the passage or using any highlighting or notations you may have made. The SK is only found from your LTM. Then the effective organization of the passage and of your LTM will become a central factor in how well you do on the MCAT questions.

The organization of the passage is done in various ways. The main available method, other than a photographic memory which is very rare, is to highlight or notate in some fashion. This will help you visually get to the key info for a given question as rapidly as possible.

For your LTM, the organization depends on how you stored the info initially. Here again, the WM is crucial. Knowledge storage begins with its recognition, or bringing it to your attention, in your IM. It is then passed to your WM where it can be processed into your LTM. The most ineffective means of storage in LTM is simply by rote memorization. Info stored in this manner is the least accessible at critical times…ie, taking a test. More effective LTM storage occurs when the new info in WM is somehow meshed with existing memory in LTM (Importance of Effective Long Term Memory For MCAT,Creating Effective Long Term Memory-Part I, Creating Effective Long Term Memory-Part II.) To do this, you must bring that info from LTM into WM so this process can occur. Then the storage of this new info in your LTM becomes connected with existing and info and will be more available for rapid retrieval.
What’s the point? If you don’t want to be complaining that you studied hard but did poorly on the test, then you need to pay attention to the role of WM during your study process and during test time and understand its central role.

Related Entry: Long Term Memory and Working Memory

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