To Cram or Not to Cram?

Yikes! You have a test coming up and you haven’t been as diligent about studying as you should have been. You plan to buy some super-caffeinated beverages, down some sugary snacks, and stay up all night dumping information into your brain. But is cramming really the best way to prepare for that exam?

Why Cramming Doesn’t Work

An article from the BBC explains, “Different parts of the brain support different kinds of memory … Just because your visual cortex is fluently processing your notes after five consecutive hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the rest of your brain is going to be able to reconstruct the memory of them when you really need it to.”

The same BBC article cites a study from researchers at the University of California who found that for 90 percent of participates, spaced-out learning (yeah, that’s learning over intervals, not spacing out while learning) was more effective than cramming. However, 72 percent of people in the survey claimed that they felt the cramming was more effective. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that cramming is the best way to prepare for a test.

Is Cramming Ever Effective?

“But,” you might say, “isn’t cramming better than not studying at all? There has to be some benefit to cramming.” Yes, cramming is not 100-percent bad. If you’re really desperate and your upcoming exam is going to be in a simple format — such as multiple choice or true and false — you might be able to memorize the facts you need in order to get a decent grade. You might not be able to fluently explain the information in an essay, but you could probably dredge up the basics from your study-exhausted brain.

To make the most of your cram session, refuse to get distracted by social media or by your study buddy who keeps insisting on a “Netflix and chill” break. Focus on learning concepts that you know will play a prominent part in the exam. Try not to cram through the night. If you’re well-rested for your test, you’re more likely to perform well.

You should also know your individual learning style. Facts are going to stick better if you absorb them in a way that is easy for your brain to process.

The Best Way to Study

So if cramming doesn’t work, how should you study?

  • Establish a good study routine and use highlighters to mark the most-important information. If you find some ideas to be particularly difficult, note these and review those subjects more often.
  • Try explaining what you learn in your own words. If you can correctly teach something to someone else, you can be confident that you’ve got the topic down.
  • If you’re short on time, review previous tests so you can anticipate the types of questions you might encounter. Try to come up with mnemonic devices for tricky concepts.
  • Stay positive. Stress can negatively affect your memory.

Cramming might be able to help you score a few extra points on an exam, but it really isn’t a good way to study. To perform at your academic best, start preparing for exams as early as possible.

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