Does Cramming for Tests Work?


Although you may be proud of yourself for passing a test by staying up all night and cramming right before the test; you might kick yourself knowing that you could’ve done much better and studied less if you spaced your study out by just a few days.  The science is in.  Cramming for a test, unequivocally doesn’t work.  Cramming for a test doesn’t work for two specific reasons: lack of material absorption and lack of sleep.

Material absorption

Although your brain us immensely powerful, there is no way it can fully absorb 12 chapters of material in 24 hours. In addition to remembering material, it is also tasked with interweaving and connecting different concepts into permanent knowledge. Remembering rote material is one thing, but connecting different concepts together is a whole different animal. However, both are extremely hard to do within 24 hours. Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers, talks about two different modes of learning which are equally important to understanding new knowledge and connecting concepts. The two modes of learning are diffused and focused mode.

The interplay between diffused versus focused mode of learning is a big concept in Barbara Oakley’s book.  Her thesis is that you need both modes of learning in order to learn effectively.  Focused mode of learning is when you are sitting down, actively studying the material with intent (and intense focus).  During focused mode, you are concentrated solely on learning the material.  But focused mode alone doesn’t get the job done when it comes to actually making the knowledge stick.  In order to make the knowledge stick, you also need the diffused mode of learning.  Diffused mode of thinking is a more relaxed thinking style, related to a neuro resting stage. It is known as the big picture perspective.  Diffused mode happens when you are doing something else and letting the idea just percolate in the background in your mind.  Examples of diffused mode is thinking about a math problem while walking or brainstorming ideas for a thesis sentence while you are showering.  While diffused mode is not great for detail-oriented thinking, it is great for connecting ideas and understanding the big picture behind concepts you are learning.

In order to learn something deeply, your mind has to switch between focused and diffused mode for several days.  This is the opportunity that you do not get when you are cramming last minute.  When are cramming last minute, you do not have the time available to switch between diffused and focused modes; all you have time for is a last-minute diffused mode cram session.   Only by switching back and forth between focused and diffused mode of thinking using spaced repetition will you be able to store information for long-term use.

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.  Additionally. the fact that the information fails to be stored in long-term memory is also the reason why you fail to remember the material after the examination.

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 the A students store what they have learned.

Sleep Deprivation

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 and to truly bring understanding to the material you are studying.

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 in advance. Find out what is going to be on the test. To lock information into your long-term memory, spend around 30-60 minutes or so a day going over the course content. Studying an hour a day for a week will serve you far better than studying 10 hours the day prior.  Again, this is because you are allowing time for your brain to switch back and forth between focused and diffused mode.  By the time the test arrives, you will have mastered the information and have no need to cram!

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!

Breaking the Cramming Habit

There’s no avoiding it. Throughout your education, you will need to take 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.  But you can break it.  Here’s how.

The first step to breaking the habit is to accept that 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.

The two most important things you can do to break your procrastination and cramming habit is to study bits at a time and to plan your longer study sessions ahead. Use the spaced repetition method to study after initially learning the material.  You only need to spend 10-15 minutes per day on reviewing in the several immediate days after initial learning to truly store the information in long-term memory.  Planning ahead requires you to find out the test dates and blocking out time for studying in advance one week in advance.  When you block out time to study for the test, actually do it.  To actually make sure you study when it is time to study, use my alarm clock method for setting up a cue to study.

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