Here’s how you get hired but never get promoted: cram for your exams. I know, I know… I’m a professor admonishing students to improve study habits. Enough already. So let me change hats for you – I was in corporate America for 29 years before becoming a college professor. I had my own company for seven years and was an executive for 20 years. I hired (and fired) a lot of people. Here’s what I observed.

In a professional office, new college graduates fall generally into two camps: the “real deal” and “paper tigers.” Real-deal employees produce. They advance and are targeted for the best positions.

Paper tigers look good on paper, but when challenged they falter. It is clear they don’t remember much from their education. They generally make a mess of early work. In my experience, these employees were either let go or isolated in low-potential line positions. We, perhaps unkindly, called them “worker bees.”

Since transitioning to academia I’ve come to understand how this comes about. First, you must understand the difference between short-term, medium-term, and long-term memory:

  • Short-term memory is how you function from moment to moment. For example, I only need to remember the restaurant menu for about two minutes.
  • Medium-term is how you remember things for a few days or weeks, but recall diminishes quickly thereafter. Medium-term is used for things like remembering your hotel room number or – wait for it – exams. Most study habits work with medium-term memory providing just enough recall to score on the exam, but too little recall to use that information six months or a year later.
  • Long-term memory is available forever. To excel in your career, long-term is the goal.

How do you get things in long-term memory?

  1. Identify what should go into long-term memory. This is easy. Have you noticed that each course has “learning objectives” on the syllabus? Those are not some esoteric academic exercise. That’s what you need to take with you forever. It will get you promoted.
  2. Understand which techniques DO NOT WORK for long-term memory: repeat readings, highlighting, and downloading PowerPoints. Research has proven that none of these improve long-term recall. The worst technique is CRAMMING. A late burst of intense study stays with you for a few days at most. It gets you a grade but is useless in the long haul. Cramming is the moral equivalent of burning tuition money; it keeps you warm for a few seconds but has no lasting value.
  3. Use what works: paced study and forced recall. Forced recall is the technique of drawing information from memory unassisted. Outlining in your own words, self-quizzing, practice exams, and using a study partner that forces you to recall from memory all work. Do this over time, not all at once. Study in shorter sessions spaced apart by a day or two. Five 30-minute sessions over a week are better than a 2.5 hour blitz.

A degree is a credential that gets you hired. Knowledge is a tool that gets you promoted. You can fool your professor with the illusion of knowledge from your medium-term memory. You won’t fool your boss.

Are you looking for a career path where you can be the “real deal”? UMHB’s Career Services center can help! We invite you to visit our website to learn more.