Does Cramming for Exams Work?

There’s no avoiding it. Throughout your education, you will have to sit exams and undertake tests. For most students, an impending test can cause anxiety, procrastination, last-minute cramming, and the poor test scores that come as a result. Proper study preparation can ease the anxiety and procrastination, but cramming can be a hard habit to break.

The first step is to accept the obvious: cramming doesn’t work. Last-minute revision is fine, but trying to learn the entire text book the night before a test will lead to (almost certain failure) certain failure and almost zero percent retention after the test. You might scrape by with a passing grade when you could have excelled had you studied properly. Why doesn’t cramming work?

Why Cramming Doesn’t Work

When we learn information, it is first stored in our short-term memory bank. This is a place that is active when we are “working” – it’s where the brain stores information it believes you will need to know in the immediate future. Small snippits of facts and figured can be stored here for a very short period of time. After that, they are completely dismissed. It’s essential to step in and stop the “deletion” of information from the “working” memory by moving them into a more secure location – long term memory. This is where A+ students store what they have learned.

By cramming, you are filling up your short term memory. The more you fill it, the more information will be deleted. There is no way of holding an entire subject’s worth of study in your short-term memory. Long-term memory has a much greater capacity, and an even faster recall rate. Not only does cramming fail to store facts in long-term memory, but it runs the risk of confusing the brain and “over-riding” important information you’ve already learned.

All-nighters go hand-in-hand with cramming, and it’s this sleep deprivation that causes memory loss, stress, and brain-fog that can severely ruin your test scores. During restful sleep at night, your brain processes the information you have recently taken in and builds new neuro-pathways to associate it with content already stored in your memory. It’s this process that you need in order to store things in long-term memory!

To avoid the “need” for cramming and the dreaded all-nighters, set yourself a regular study schedule. As soon as you learn that there is going to be a test, start preparing yourself (even if the teacher or lecturer doesn’t tell you to do so directly!). Find out what is going to be in the test, how and how long you’ve got until. To lock information into your long-term memory, spend around 30 minutes a day going over the course content. By the time the test arrives, you will have mastered the information and have no need to cram!

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus did an experiment which tested how much we can retain after a certain amount of time.  The chart below shows how much of learned “items” we can retain after a certain number of days.  The graph is an average and some people’s retention may be better or worse than it the graph.  It shows that we can keep an item in our memory bank for app


normal-memory-retention review-memory-retention

The amount of time you should spend on content the night before a test is three hours at the most. Even if you have properly studied leading up to this point, you may still feel stressed and unprepared. Don’t panic. Use self-talk to boost your confidence and allay your fears. Saying statements like, “I have prepared for this test, and I’m going to do well!” can help to ease anxiety and remind you to keep things in perspective. Resist the temptation for a final cramming session by distracting yourself with a movie or dinner with friends!

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