You have an exam tomorrow and you’re not feeling prepared. With only a few waking hours to go, how is it best you spend your time?
To pass tomorrow’s exam, cramming might help you write more on the paper than you would have without doing any form of study, depending on how stressed out you are. But it certainly won’t help you learn the information deeply. You will have forgotten most of what you crammed within a week.
Cramming doesn’t work for retaining information
Research shows we overestimate our ability to remember information and underestimate the importance of actively learning information. Students will often say they don’t need to take notes because they have great memories. But this research suggests we assume we’ll remember things forever as well as we do now (we won’t). We underestimate our need to learn and relearn information to be able to recall it when we need it.
As an article in The New York Times put it, cramming is like jam-packing your brain:
But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.
So if your exam is tomorrow then cramming might help, but research shows when students see the same material again at a later date, it’s like they have never seen it before.
Cramming and stress
If you’re feeling anxious, it might be better to put the books down and not attempt to cram. Cramming can clog working memory and that can result in cognitive overload, making you feel overwhelmed.
Going to bed late because of a cramming session, overstimulated from too many energy drinks, then tossing and turning with an overloaded brain, could be worse for you than just giving up now and going to bed.
Four study strategies that are better than cramming
It’s never too late to adopt good study habits that will improve your exam success and relieve your exam anxiety.
1. Get organised
A major reason for cramming is poor organisation of time. Time-poor students should use a planner to identify the times available for study and block out those times in the planner. Then actually be disciplined and use that time to study.
Get a study binder – electronic or hard copy – and keep it organised. Use it regularly to store and review your study notes and materials.
Being organised with your study materials helps you to be organised in your thinking, too, as you can easily access the materials you need to help you study in the time you have prioritised to study.
2. Take, make, interact with and reflect on notes
Taking notes is important. An active note-taking process is important to help you transfer new information from short-term memory and then recall it more easily after it is stored in the long-term memory.
3. Keep interacting with the content
Research has found the rate you forget information is minimised if you interact with (reread/discuss/write) new information within 24 hours of first receiving it. A second, shorter repetition within 24 hours brings recall back up to 100%. A third repetition within a week for an even shorter time brings recall back to 100%.
Going back to the suitcase analogy:
When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.
When cramming, students often concentrate on one thing intensively for a long period of time. That doesn’t work either. Research shows learning is more effective if the type of material being studied is mixed and study periods are spaced out over time.
That’s why athletes, musicians and students should mix up their training/rehearsal/study sessions by practising different skills over different time periods, rather than focusing on just one thing for an extended time.
So once you have a good set of notes, what is the best way to interact with them? Self-testing is a powerful way to study and learn.
Other tools you can use to help you self-test are to use mnemonics and flash cards. Mnemonics are memory devices that help you to recall information. An example of a well-known mnemonic is “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”.
Flash cards are a great way to self-test. Good organisation of where you store your flash cards and effective use of them are essential to maximise their study potential. It’s good to mix up sets of flash cards and study them in short bursts.
If all you want to do is retain the information until after your exam tomorrow, a bit of cramming now might help. But if you’re feeling highly anxious your brain might not retain new information anyway. It might be a better idea to eat a nutritious dinner, go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep.
When you wake up, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself you can only do as well as you can do, and it will all be over in a few hours anyway.
But next time save yourself the stress and take the time to engage with the content frequently. Only this will ensure it’s locked up tight in your brain for a long time. And, finally, good luck!