Working memory can play a trick on our test-based school systems. This is because working memory can only hold data for days to weeks, so that we can pass a test without long-term memory ever being activated. This trick explains why we can get 100 percent of the answers right on a test and three months later have little or no recollection of the test’s content.
Grades are the holy grail of the school system; every student knows this and places great value on them. For many students, grades can even take on life and death significance. Because of this, the primary goal of every student is to get passing grades – the higher the better. Whether the information studied is placed into long-term memory or not becomes a very distant and secondary goal for most students. This emphasis on grades creates a mental environment where the brain selects for inclusion into long-term memory not the information studied but the strategies used to pass tests. The result is that the student memorizes the periodic tables, gets an A on the test, and three months later can remember very few of those elements. What does get placed into long-term memory? What can he remember very well? The devices he used to get a passing grade, such as cramming, borrowing notes from friends, his favorite study place, and caffeine binges with drug-delivery systems such as coffee, No Doz, and Red Bull that helped him pull all-nighters and get the passing grades. (See “Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized.”)