Magoosh GRE

Describe the cognitive processes required when preparing for examinations

| February 7, 2017

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The aim of the present paper was to investigate and discuss the cognitive processes involved in the preparation for exams. The paper covers the background of cognitive psychology, discussing the separate faculties of cognitive processing. It then goes on to discuss the specific faculties of attention and memory, as these were two fundamental mechanisms included in the literature when taking into account the learning and memorisation of information. Discussion about the cognitive processes involved in attention and memory is incorporated in to the paper, and suggestions on how students can use cognitive techniques to enhance the performance of these cognitive processes whilst preparing for exams are subsumed. The paper concludes with the suggestion that the working memory model as proposed by Baddeley & Hitch (1974) is the main cognitive process involved in exam preparation.

The term “cognition” is derived from the Latin word “cognoscere” which when translated in to the English language, denotes the meaning “to know”. Hence, cognitive psychology is concerned with the scientific study of human cognition. Processes such as perception, learning, judgement, decision making and memory are some of the mechanisms that constitute as cognitive ability. The fundamental aim of researchers in the field of cognitive psychology is to establish how individuals acquire and apply knowledge and information to and from their environments (Lu & Dosher, 2007). Knowledge through perception is attained by way of the five senses where different aspects of the information such as form and motion represent various different features of the stimuli (Livingstone & Hubel, 1988; Ungerleider & Mishkin, 1982; Julesz, 1971). The purpose of learning is to improve the response of the individual to their environment (Kandel, 1976; Estes, 1969). Thus, throughout the psychological literature on cognitive processing, emphasis has been based on the effect of prior experience and procedural knowledge on an individual’s performance (Roediger, 1990). The attention function of the cognitive process manages information so that the mind operates efficiently without becoming overloaded. This is done through selective processing, whereby certain pieces of information are elected for processing. Additionally, the attention faculty may also manage the intake of simultaneous pieces of information by dividing and distributing the resources applied to them (Broadbent, 1957; Posner, 1980; Treisman, 1969). The judgement and decision making faculty of cognitive processing is required for the individual to effectively perform a voluntary behaviour. The choice that the individual makes may be driven by implicit or explicit judgement and selection, implicating that the individual may have a conscious or unconscious cause for their decision (von Neumann & Morgenstern 1944; Luce, 1959). Yet, the most developed aspect of cognitive psychology and the study of cognitive processes is the faculty of memory. Memory studies place considerable emphasis on investigating the methods in which memories are acquired, stored and retrieved. Research provides indication that the capacity of memory is divided to perform separate duties such as retaining information about the environment, procedures, skills and running the working memory mechanism (Cowan, 1995; Dosher, 1999). The essay at hand endeavours to discuss which cognitive processes are employed during preparation for an exam, with specific references to the attention and memory functions of the brain, as these are the two functions that go hand in hand when retaining and recalling information (Cherry, 2014).
The aptitude to process information selectively through attention, and retain information in a way in which is accessible through the working memory are two imperative aspects of cognitive capacity. While evidence indicates that attention plays little role in the maintenance of information encoded in the memory (Fougnie, 2008), it has been suggested that there are strong links between the working memory and attention faculties of the cognitive mind during the encoding and manipulation process of knowledge acquisition (Cherry 2014; Fougnie, 2008). Theoretical models of the working memory commonly describe a role for attention. However, between these different models, the exact role for attention has not been agreed on and remains vaguely unclear, thus debates about which processing stage that attentional selection occurs (Fougnie, 2008). The most widely accepted model of memory is the Working Memory Model proposed by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974. In this model, attention is the mediator between sensory memory and the central executive, where sub functions such as the phonological store and the visuospatial sketch pad, two short term memory stores, hold short term auditory and visual information respectively. These are known as the ‘slave systems’ and provide evidence as to how humans are able to multitask. According to the working memory model, the information from these slave systems are then transferred back to the central executive whereby they are encoded in the long-term memory (Fougnie, 2008). These findings provide an outline to which cognitive processes occur during exam preparation, where students attempt to retain information that they will later on retrieve. Yet, further research suggests that learning and retaining information for exams may be a more complex procedure than those outlined by memory models (Hill, 2009).
Ebbinghaus (1885) investigated the method in which the retention and forgetting of information occur. The establishment of the forgetting curve provided insight into how memories dissipate over a period of time (Groome, Brace, Dewart, Edgar, Edgar, Esgate, Kemp, Pike & Stafford, 2006). Similarly, Bartlett’s Story Recall experiment (1932) lent insight to the notion that information is required to hold semantic value in order to be remembered (Groome, et al., 2006). Thus, according to Hill (2009), the most effective ways for students to memorise information for their exams is through repetition, elaboration and organisation. To further elaborate on the suggestions of Ebbinghaus (1885), Bartlett (1932) and Hill (2009), researchers proposed several studies in sustenance. Ebbinghaus (1885) further stated that in order to avoid forgetting and enhance memory, repetition was significantly valuable. Making use of the ‘mind’s voice’, the phonological loop, the cycle of learning and accurately recalling strengthens the memory, thus making exam preparation easier as less time will be required to re-learn the material, hence why revising for exams more than once improves recall (Hill, 2009). Moreover, in favour of Bartlett (1932), it has been found that information possessing semantic value is recalled more efficiently (Craik & Tulving, 1975; Ley, 1978). It may be hypothesised that the explanation of is deduced to the attention function of the working memory selecting meaningful information in order to enhance the individual’s performance based on prior learning and experience. Based on these findings, mnemonics may be suggested as an effective revision tool, since associating information with vivid visual imagery and words has proven enhanced recall (Bower, 1972). Furthermore, presenting information in a structured manner in which meaning is conveyed has been found to facilitate recall (Hill, 2009). By grouping or ordering materials in an organised manner, the individual will take advantage of the mind’s existing method of representing information semantically, thus making the information easier to encode and retrieve through memory. For example, Ley et al (1978) found that presenting medical information to patients in an organised and structured way improved their recall up to 25%. Thus, it is suggested that students adequately organise their learning materials in a semantic manner in order to prepare for their exams in the most resourceful way.
Although the literature has provided rich evidence to support the notion that the memory and attention faculties play a major role in exam preparation, there are also relevant limitations in need of addressing. The working memory model has been criticised as being invalid, as when new studies propose findings that do not fit with the current working memory model, the working memory model is modified in order to accommodate the new findings. This makes it difficult to falsify the model or replace it with a new one, and indicates that any research findings based on the working memory model are void (Neath & Nairne , 1995). Moreover, the findings of Ebbinghaus (1885) have been questioned, as the subject of his study was himself. Without any objective findings, researchers believe the results of the forgetting curve to be unreliable (Hill, 2009). Despite these criticisms, later research based on both the working memory model and the forgetting curve has successfully uncovered new findings on the cognitive processes involved in memory (Groome, et al., 2006).

In conclusion, the findings in the literature have lent ample support to the notion that exam preparation heavily relies on the cognitive processes of attention and memory. The literature has indicated that these two faculties work conjointly in order to achieve long-term memory. Studies on the Working Memory Model have identified the specific roles of the two cognitive processes, and the literature has provided further support on how the working memory model is vital in exam revision through detailed descriptions of these functions. Studies on memory retention and forgetting have implicated that repetition, elaboration and organisation are the key skills that an individual needs to employ whist preparing for exams in order to maintain an optimal memory capacity for the revised information. Regardless of the limitations associated with the research done on memory, the working memory model still stands as a strong representative for the cognitive process involved in exam preparation.


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