We’ve all been there – frantically reviewing notes up until you walk into the exam hall, manically studying flash cards hoping something sticks, and the overwhelming feelings of sheer panic (and a bit of self-loathing chucked in there for good measure). Cramming is something that we’ve all done at least once - and for the serial procrastinators amongst us, more often than we’d like to admit.
Whilst we like to tell ourselves we’ll stick to a rigorous study plan to prevent having to end up in this very position, life happens, and sometimes we end up in the situation of having no choice but to cram.
But no lectures here - we’ve outlined the pros and cons of cramming and how to cram most effectively when the clocks ticking and it’s only days out from your exam. So whether it’s down to a lack of a disciplined study routine, or just plain old procrastination, here’s the information to take note of.
Cramming isn’t an ideal situation for any of us, but for the glass half-full of you, these are the silver linings of cramming.
- It’s widely accepted that spacing out study is more effective than cramming, however that’s not to say cramming is ineffective. At the very least cramming the night before keeps the information fresh in your mind – albeit only in your short-term memory. Nevertheless your cramming sessions and the “massing” of information form neural connections in the brain to establish new short-term memory.
- You’ll concentrate on your study material better. If it's gotten to the stage where cramming is required then no doubt some panic has seeped in and you’ll be more committed to the study sessions that you can actually fit in.
- In the aftermath of your cramming session, evaluating what particular cramming technique worked best for you is an unexpected and invaluable benefit. So if you found that making up acronyms helped you to memorize a particular piece of information, or that reciting your study material aloud is what made it sink in best, you can utilize this next time – and hopefully next time is further out from exams.
For some the stress can be paralysing. The anxiety that often accompanies a lack of preparation and the pressure of cramming could prevent you from taking in the information you’re trying to memorize, and can often result in mental blanks during the exams themselves.
Time constraints mean you may miss important information or won’t gain a large enough understanding of the topic at hand. Important theories and equations may not be properly grasped, important historical dates and figures might be forgotten and the entire topic may just seem like a completely foreign concept.
You’re unlikely you actually learn anything from cramming. If you’re lucky you may actually manage to memorize all the information you need to blitz through your exam but evidence shows that cramming only store information in your short-term memory rather than your long-term memory. So if your exam is for a subject that’s integral to your future career this is a significant drawback, as cramming won’t provide you with much working knowledge of the topic.
How to cram effectively
- Don’t pull an all nighter – as tempting as it can be, evidence shows this is actually counterproductive. Instead, a study from the University of Exeter found that “sleeping on it” helps to “make memories more accessible” and “sharpens our power of recall”. Staying up all night to go over your study notes will only exhaust your brain, and you won't be able to work as well the day of and actually retain the information you’ve managed to go over. It’s more beneficial in the long run to get a good night’s sleep than to try and cram in a few more hours worth of subject material.
- Get some brain fuel. Foods and beverages containing nootropics, such as Caffeine, Ginkgo Biloba and Ginseng, provides you with the intense focus you need when the clock is ticking. They allow you to power through without the jitters from caffeine - the last thing you need before an exam.
- Don’t just read over your textbook - study smarter. Do practice tests, rewrite content in your own terms, recite your study material out loud, teach a friend or family member and utilise apps such as StudyBlue to make flash cards. Pouring over your notes is a waste of time; you need to take advantage of the limited time you have left.
- Study in a productive environment. You may have ignored it all semester, but now is the time to finally take advantage of the library. The quiet, distraction-free study environment will make sure you work at your best and hopefully being surrounded by fellow students who’ve actually studied consistently all semester and are calming reviewing notes will motivate you to get into gear – or seeing other procrastinators cramming will give you a sense of solace.
- Most importantly don’t panic. There are always options if you don’t do as well as you would’ve liked, and panicking is useless at this stage of the game, direct this sense of urgency to your cramming instead.
Whilst we advocate for a long-term study routine, hopefully this has provided an idea of what to consider and how to cope when an emergency cram session is the only way to go.
WORDS BY CLAUDIA STACEY-MURRAY