Does Cramming for a Test Really Work?

Does late-night cramming in your room actually work?

Photo by schmidtgergely

We’ve all done it. It’s Thursday night and you remember that you have a unit test in Physics tomorrow morning–time to cram.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in high school or college. If you’re a student, chances are pretty good you’ve waited until the last minute to study for a test. But does cramming for a test really do any good?

It depends. What kind of learner you are and how are you using your “cram time”? It also depends on what the test is covering. If it’s going to be straight up multiple-choice and based on memorization, cramming can work. Good luck if you’re being asked to apply that information.

If you’re like me, cramming for a test consists of hunkering down at the library and surrounding yourself with piles of your textbooks and research articles. What actually takes place at that table though? Well, I browse my Facebook newsfeed, scroll through the Twitter feed, and update my Google Calendar. Sound familiar?

Then, after sitting there for an hour or so, I might be productive for about 30 minutes. After that, I need a Pinterest break. Then I’ll read another chapter and need a snack.

This is not a productive way to study.

Be aware of how you learn. Do you recall information better if you’ve read it, heard it, or experienced it? Take that into consideration when you’re deciding how, where, or when to study.

Obviously, when you’re trying to learn something, the more time you spend with the content the better recall you’ll have. It also usually works best if you spread that time out over multiple days. 30 minutes of studying for Biology each day is better than a 6-hour cram session on Sunday night.

I realize that students have busy schedules. Right now I’m trying to balance being a graduate student and intern, working part-time and job searching, and planning a wedding. That leaves approximately 2 minutes a day for studying.

If you’re in a similar situation and cramming for a test seems like your only option, try these strategies to maximize your efforts.

1. Unplug

When you're cramming for a test, unplug so you aren't distracted.

Source: Pixabay user JESHOOTS.

Help yourself stay on task–turn off your wifi. You’re a lot less likely to get distracted if your phone is in your backpack and your laptop is on airplane mode.

This won’t work if you use Google docs for everything, but if you are going old school with a textbook, pen, and paper it’s amazing how much more you can accomplish without constant notification dings.

If your professors put everything on a site like Blackboard or Mood, download what you need ahead of time so you aren’t tempted to turn your internet back on for “just 5 more minutes”.

2. Study with classmates

Studying with other people can help, even when you're cramming for a test.

Flickr user University of Salford Press Office

Now when I say “study with classmates” I don’t necessarily mean “study with your best friends”. Choose people who will help you stay on topic.

If you’ve done the reading, reinforcing it with a discussion about the content will increase your ability to recall that information when it comes time to take the test.

Having peers study with you is also a nice way to clarify tricky concepts or things you didn’t understand from the lecture or readings.

3. Teach someone else

Source: Flickr user cityyear.

One of the most effective ways to learn and reinforce concepts is to teach them to someone else. This could be your roommate that oversleeps and misses class every day or someone who isn’t even taking the class.

Feel free to use notes or your textbook when doing this. Putting the content into your own words, for some reason, helps it stick in your brain. Saying it out loud only reinforces it more.

If you do have one of those friends or roommates, they owe you for helping them out. But you’re also doing yourself a favor by going over it with them.

4. Don’t spend hours re-reading

Source: Flickr user CollegeDegrees360.

If you’re limited on time, re-reading everything you’ve collected for a unit or entire semester won’t help much.

I love highlighters. I’m definitely guilty of color-coding textbooks. Turns out that’s not a great way to remember things either.

Instead, when you’re reading the first time around, make notes of key concepts or definitions. I’ve done this with a pencil and paper, but I’ve also typed them into a word doc. Again, by putting the information into your own words you’re also helping commit it to memory, but in a language you understand.

At the end of the day, it’s the end of the day, and you have to study somehow. If you’ve put it off, cramming might be your only option. Yes, it can work sometimes, but it depends on the content, test format, and how you learn best.

If you find yourself cramming for every single test, get yourself a planner and schedule in blocks for studying to spread it out.

Don’t cram if you want to be able to recall the information later on in life. If you don’t care to remember the significant changes brought about by assorted dynasties throughout history, then cram away.

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