We’ve all been there.
It’s the night before a big exam and it becomes painfully obvious you are underprepared. We’re not talking about the last minute jitters of a perfectionist who has kept up with their studying. (That person may simply need to give the material one final review or get a couple of questions answered.) No, this is a situation where a few weeks of readings, practice drills and other assignments were neglected — regardless of whether the cause was your own procrastination or because life truly threw you some curve balls.
That leaves only three options — beg and plead with your teacher or professor for extra time (generally not a winning strategy), study for a half hour and hope for the best (good luck with that one), or cram.
Hey, cramming isn’t so bad, right? It’s just 4 or 6 or 10 hours of concentrated study. And by tomorrow at the same time, it will be over. Most of us have heard the admonitions against cramming — basically that it doesn’t work that well. Yet, faced with the reality that we are not ready for the exam, ‘tis better to cram than not to cram. And sometimes we’re able to cheat the Test Reaper entirely with grades that are as good as usual.
But while we may be able to salvage a decent grade with a lengthy, intense night or two of studying, research has demonstrated that it’s a poor long-term learning strategy, according to Cheryl Durwin, assistant chairwoman of Southern’s Psychology Department. The reason has to do with the physiology of how the brain works.
Durwin says that when we learn, the information first enters sensory memory. But only that information that we pay attention to and process in some way will get remembered and stored in our working memory. The working memory is what we rely on for tomorrow’s test. “When students cram, they try to stuff too much information into working memory, which typically holds only 5 to 9 chunks of information before it becomes overloaded,” Durwin says.
But for long-term learning — the kind needed for cumulative final exams, future courses and life skills – cramming fares even more poorly. To truly retain what we learn for the long run, the information must be stored in our long-term memory. And that just doesn’t happen well when we study something for 24 or 48 hours, and then stop rehearsing it, as we commonly do after a test. And soon the information is lost from the shorter-term working memory.
“A better approach is to use distributed practice — studying over an extended period of time,” Durwin says. “Break up material into small, manageable parts and study one part each night. Don’t just read the information. After each section, try to summarize what you read in your own words. Write questions in the margins about things you don’t understand, so you can ask your instructor or look up answers. On the night before the exam, review and quiz yourself. This way, you avoid overloading working memory and important information will be stored in long-term memory for later use.”
OK, you might say, that sounds great for the future. But what about that exam you have coming up in two days? If you must play catch up for a test, Durwin says two days of cramming is better than one. Three days is better than two. She suggests the following to get the most out of cram sessions:
- Focus first on material that is close to being learned, but not yet mastered. In other words, stuff you almost know, or mostly know. Then, proceed to increasingly more difficult information.
- Use any study technique that makes information more meaningful. It might involve making flash cards or writing study notes. But be sure to put information into your own words and generate an example that is familiar and relevant to you. This helps prevent merely parroting words and phrases you do not understand.
- Create organizational tools, such as timelines, concept maps, bubble maps, flowcharts, compare/contrast charts and diagrams. The better you organize information, the more likely you’ll remember it.
What techniques have you found to be useful in preparing for an exam at the 11th hour?