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In case I forget… March 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science.
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A couple days ago, someone asked me what the units for conductivity were.  For the life of me, I couldn’t remember.  To add insult to injury, when I had the answer (1/(m•ohms)), I felt like a complete idiot.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen it in a while and couldn’t remember, it was that I had used it recently and completely blanked out.

Some of the work I do involves different ways of depositing metals.  These different deposition methods result in the metals having different conductivities and surface roughnesses.  I have to model small features such that these things, along with other parameters like skin depth, become important.  Therefore, I often need to perform conversions between what I find in the literature and what my simulation software uses for units.  I’ve written reports and made conference posters where I had to include this information.  So I work with it a lot.

I think the problem, therefore, is that I wasn’t at my desk or I would have remembered.  You may laugh, but there is a lot of research into what’s called “context dependent memory”. (Here’s the wiki article.)  Basically, if you learn something or use something in a particular environment, that environment is likely to cue you to remember the information learned there.

I wish I’d known about this a long time ago.

Remembering facts is easier when you learn them in the same environment where you use them.  Therefore, one way to do better on an exam is to study in the classroom where you’re likely to take the exam.  Or you can use a scent sachet when you study, and then bring it to your exam as the smell of the sachet will help with recall of the items learned while smelling it.  Or something bright red…or…well, basically anything familiar that you can have with you during a test.

I’m not sure what else would have helped in my case, however, given access to my office wasn’t possible at that point.  The fact of the matter is that I have a horrible memory for details.  I write things down.  In fact, I write everything down.  The act of writing things down will help, but not always.  Repetition helps, but I think I have to repeat more than the average person to get it down.  And having children (resulting in a lack of focus) and getting less sleep very obviously has made my memory problem worse.

I have to admit that it’s hard living in a society where recall of facts is equated with intelligence, especially when I was taking classes.  However, I try to remind myself that I have a lot of other good things: intuition, creativity, and motivation are not easily measured on tests, and yet, in my experience, they are often more important than pulling things out of the recesses of my brain.  (On the other hand, you now know why I have such a huge library of technical books.)

So there are ways to deal with it, and it’s not quintessential to get through life…and…I’m sure I would make another point about this, if I could remember what it was.

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