Memory vs Gadgets

If I were to ask you to spill out the phone numbers of your family or friends off the top of your head? In an increasingly “Mobile-dependent” world, we all rely heavily on our electronic devices to remember such ‘mundane’ information for us. However, every time the higher bodies mull over the idea of calculators in examination halls, straight comes the reply – dumbing down. How conventionally hypocritical of us!

For the young ones, who spend more than 3/4th of their day mugging up mathematics tables, the prominence is on mental arithmetic. Calculators are not yet ‘legalized’.

Also, their use is limited to the annual university exams, where good sense prevailed few years back, and students were allowed to carry calculators, though, not yet in the mathematics exam.

No dictionaries

In foreign language exams, dictionaries have had an equally plaid track record. Their useage in exams was banned 20 years ago, until the early 2000 when a research consecutively proved that dictionaries gave the perkiest students a superior advantage. Though, there are still a few subjects where a student isn’t allowed any form of dictionary. Recently a consultation paper was released by the government as part of its recent discussion on the exam, and they responses received pointed towards a divided opinion. In a unique way, these are all quandaries about the boundary between retrieving information and manipulating it, amid information and understanding. And search engines, are still a digital mystery.

For a moment, imagine allowing students to roam through a vast digital library – the pre-digital equivalent. Students won’t find the references they needed and ultimately would return to their desk to complete the exam. Now unimaginable amounts of information lie at our fingertips. But does the act of memorising and then recalling information mould our brains in a different way? Scientists are showing increasing interest in the life-long plasticity of the human brain and how its physical structure is altered by how we use it. Learning that requires effort, and the use of that knowledge, might subtly alter mental development. Some of the best known studies involve London’s licensed black cab drivers, who have to memorise 25,000 city streets.

The process takes applicants between two and four years and many fail the final test, known as The Knowledge, because of its difficulty.

But after four years, they found the taxi drivers’ brain structure had altered, showing more grey matter in part of the hippocampus.

‘No brainer’

The digital age is also raising broader philosophical questions about memory. How much do we need to remember when it can be effortlessly recalled for us by a machine? If the use of search engines for retrieving facts is allowed at some point in the future, exams themselves might have to change. Examiners would need to find ways of distinguishing between those students regurgitating information and those who could show how much they truly understood.


Exams have to be much more than a memory test. Scientists believe exams should assess ability to interpret and analyse information and that allowing the use of search engines is “a no brainer”. This may mean, for example, seeing how well students cope with being asked to research new subjects in exams – testing whether they select appropriate resource materials and how they apply what they find to what they already know. Sceptics see a devaluing of traditional exam demands and question how effective such tests would be. With tablet and smartphone use steadily rising, it is a debate that will continue to grow.