Why Cramming for Tests Often Fails and What To Do Instead

This is a guest post written by Thomas Edison State College

Try to recall one piece of information you remember from the last time you had an intense, eleventh-hour study session. Go ahead, we’ll wait.  

Having trouble? If so, you are not alone. Unfortunately, balancing work, family obligations, volunteer and recreational activities may leave cramming as your best possible study option. However, you are not doing yourself any favors when you cram because recognizing material isn’t the same as being able to recall it.

Think about how you would learn a new instrument. Would you pick up that instrument the day before your first performance and expect to learn everything about playing it? No. Sure, you might remember a few notes the next day, if you are lucky. But to really learn a new instrument, you would need a lot of practice. Until, one day, playing it becomes second nature to you.

Memory works in the same way. If you want to learn something new, cramming is not the best way to do it. 

Cramming May Seem Easier

Cramming does not require a plan or set time to study. It may feel easier to study once than prepare for a test weeks in advance - possibly even allow more time in your schedule to participate in other activities.

However, the “ease” associated with cramming comes at a price. You are under an intense deadline. So your stress level increases, thereby decreasing your concentration. It is hard to maintain a clear focus when your mind is clouded by stress.

In fact, memory research found that intention to remember is a very minor factor in whether you remember something or not. Ideally, if you want to remember material, you need time to think and process the information. Your brain will unconsciously formulate patterns and links between what you are trying to learn – an important contributor of memory recall.

So if you are forcing yourself to remember, cramming will not help. 

Try Spacing Instead

Cramming may be unavoidable at times, but spacing – or spaced learning – has been proven to work. Consistent exposure to learning material, whether through irregular or evenly spaced study sessions – is more effective than cramming.

But, of course, you already knew that.

So, how can you avoid cramming if it is unavoidable? What can you do instead?

You do have several options, and even a combination of tactics may prove effective for you.

  • Be an active reader
    When you read your course material, think about what you have read. Take notes or write questions in the margins. By actively reading, you will better understand and remember the facts and concepts you’re studying. 
  • Test your own memory
    Take notes, and then try to write them out from memory. Or, after studying, repeat the material to yourself.
  • Break up your review sessions
    Review material in chunks of time that amount to 20 minutes or less. This will allow you to take in the material more efficiently, and still leave time for your brain to process new concepts.
  • Balance study and sleep
    Keep a consistent study and sleep schedule whenever possible. Sleep is just as important as studying when it comes to high test performance. Allow for enough sleep each night to keep your mind and body fresh and energized for the work ahead.  

As the adage goes, slow and steady wins the race. If you really want to remember that course material – for your exam and beyond – study mindfully and be prepared to dedicate some time to it. 

Tagged: study tips study best practices test preparation test taking tips