Does Cramming Really Work?

I’m pretty sure that we’re all familiar with the phenomenon called ‘cramming’. It’s a skill that almost every student has come to possess from years and years of getting used to leaving tasks until the last minute. Although it’s known that cramming won’t probably land you an A, it surely might prevent an F (and what more could one possibly ask for?)

Cramming is a last-minute study technique that students have depended on for decades, and although it has proven to have a beneficial outcome for some, it might have its consequences. Cramming is pretty much trying to memorize a large amount of information in a short period of time. We usually do it the night before a test, exam, or during revision week.

When we cram, we force our brain to grasp information superficially instead of deeply internalizing and understanding it. All of the information being stored is in the short-term memory and after a certain time (in most cases a couple of minutes) we might not remember what we have just read. This is because the short-term memory is a place where we store information that we don’t really find important. It keeps piling up and overloads the brain so it’s not kept for very long. For instance, can you remember what you had for breakfast the day before yesterday? What shirt did you wear? How much did lunch cost? You can hardly remember every single event that happened to you on a certain day. We’re literally exposed to thousands of bits of information every day. It’s not necessary to remember it all, so the brain dumps it after some time. That’s how it is with cramming, you may remember it for a few minutes, maybe even a day, but then it’s gone. Only when you make effort to remember something repeatedly then the information is transferred to the long-term memory.

A lot of educators don’t condone cramming and try to encourage the traditional way of learning by detailed understanding of the material they’re studying and repeatedly revising through it. The hurried coverage of material tends to lead to poor retention of information because when we cram, we:

  • Preview material to be covered.
  • Selectively skim through chapters for main points.
  • Concentrate on memorizing only the main points.
  • Don’t read information.

And this method strongly contradicts the whole purpose of learning. This is why educators encourage a better method of approach to help us remember materials more easily and not fall a victim of cramming.

The Spacing Effect

A lot of us might be familiar with this technique which shows that learning is more efficient when studying is spread out over time. This technique doesn’t require longer or more intensive studying, it just means that students should space out their study time. One hour for a particular material, after some time go back to it and review, repeat the same after some time has passed (always remembering to take breaks). Psychologists recommend spacing review sessions over time rather than holding one session (cramming) before an exam. While one-time review sessions may work in the short term, they don’t support long-term knowledge retention. Think of the memory as a muscle, not a storage vessel.

The RIP Tool Box for Memory

This tool box contains the three key strategies to help memory: repetition, imagery, and patterns (RIP). Although many students believe that just reading something is enough, sometimes this is not sufficient. We remember something best when it is organized and rehearsed.

There are two strategies which can help as general reminders to encourage students to use a process when trying to remember information. R SOW V and TRAP. Choose which strategy suits you best.

R SOW V T R A P
R Relax and Concentrate

People who are tense and under stress are prone to memory lapses

    T Translate

Translate the information or ideas into your own words

S Slowdown

Rushing or being impulsive reduces attention to the information or task

    R Repeat

Rehearse the information immediately and relate the new to the old ideas

O Organize

Organize the information or organize locations; keep important items in a designated place

    A A Picture

A picture is worth 1000 words; visualize the information

W Write down or Repeat

A small notebook, calendar, tape recorder or PDA can be very useful

    P A Picture

A picture is worth 1000 words; visualize the information

V Visualize

Associate an image with the information to recall

   

When it comes to education, better grades on the next test are important  —  and cramming can get you there  —  but better grades quickly are not as important as developing solid study habits that won’t leave you stressed and scrambling at the last minute. Getting better grades quickly is not as important as putting in the time to develop real and lasting understanding.

And always remember, “Learning is like taking gradual steps into enlightenment. You can’t jump over the steps you think are not useful or try to memorize the right steps to take.”

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