Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Short and long-term memory for a student

A highly educated person spends about 16 years or almost one-fourth of his lifetime in schools, from elementary school to the highest level of graduate studies. Over these years, he takes more than a thousand exams, tests or quizzes. Depending on the subject he studies in the last few years, it's safe to say half of the exams on average heavily rely on memory of the study materials, or facts and established conclusions on the facts. Memory can be categorized into short-term versus long-term. Which do you think is more important to a high score in those exams? I believe for the majority of them, it's the short-term memory. The teacher goes through a chapter and expects you to remember lots of details, soon followed by a test. These details are only minimally needed for future bigger tests, which are rare anyway. As a result, the students with better short-term memory win.

On the other hand, a professional job requires a good balance of short- and long-term memory. A medical doctor, whose profession strongly demands memorization of a large amount of information, can't do his job well if he easily forgets what he learned one or a few years ago. Even an engineer must have a good memory of certain incidents that happened a long time ago, together with its solution in general (whose details can be searched later). Without accumulation of these experiences, i.e. memory of past incidents, an engineer would remain "junior" in spite of his biological age.

And yet there's indeed benefit in emphasizing the merit of short-term memory, apart from its apparently unfair advantage in taking school tests. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that people with strong short-term memory are intelligent, understand complicated issues easily, and study new subjects fast. (I'll search to see if there's research to back this claim.) In addition, scientific study has shown association between Alzheimer disease and loss of short-term, not long-term, memory. Smartness, or intelligence, may indeed go hand-in-hand with short-term memory.