Alright, so you’re up late and you’re thinking to yourself for the hundredth time, does cramming work? That’s a great question, and in this post, we’ll answer it.
Read on to learn what is cramming, what does the research say about cramming, and learn how to cram easily.
What is Cramming?
Let’s not tell tales: we all know what cramming is. We all flash back to that night, papers strewn about the desk, frantically highlighting text in a sleep-deprived haze. Sometimes you mumble words aloud when your brain is too tired to comprehend. You load up on coffee and snacks, go through the entire process of sugar rush and sugar crash, and eventually stumble to bed, hoping you’ve got all the stuff in your head, and that it will be there tomorrow.
That’s cramming. It’s what you do when there’s a test coming up, and you didn’t spend enough time studying.
If we’re looking for technical terms, cramming features rapid memorization, skimming, and a high caffeine intake. Maybe you’ve got specific techniques for cramming — it is, after all, vital to know what works for you. If you don’t have techniques, we’re here — against our better judgment, perhaps — to help.
Real Talk: Does Cramming Work?
It works a damn shot better than not studying at all, that’s for sure. When you’re at the end of the line, sure– cram until your eyes bleed, and your head nods, and then beg the benevolent gods of testing to have mercy. It’s better than taking your test completely blind-sided.
But does cramming help your long-term knowledge and recall, your sleep and health? No. Cramming is great for getting certain numbers or names in your head — and we’ll help you do that — but it’s not the best system for understanding the subject matter. You want to develop study habits that don’t rely on cramming, and we’ll get to that, too.
What Does Research Say About Cramming?
Research says that long-term knowledge is best acquired by studying over a course of days. For instance, studying a subject for one hour each day is better than one five-hour study session.
Research also shows that interspersing your subject matter will lead to better recall. For example, learning a list of vocabulary words, then doing math problems, then going over those vocab words again will lead to better recall than lumping all your vocabulary studying together.
Both of these don’t support cramming, which is basically one extended study session in a very specific subject.
What are Pros and Cons of Cramming?
Think of it like this: you’re going to spend five hours studying that one subject, if you want to pass the test. It’s up to you whether you spend them at a library or your favorite study spot, with friends or without, in a relaxed manner — or frantically, at night, knowing you have a limited number of hours before your brain demands sleep. Why not make the experience a pleasant one?
Furthermore, cramming to the point of losing sleep will negatively impact your performance on tests. Sleep is more important than we think, and planning your studying so that you can get a good night’s sleep will reap benefits in the future.
As outlined above, long, single-subject study sessions don’t lead to the best long-term recall. If you’re going to study, why not get the most out of it, so you don’t have to re-learn what you have already learned? Cramming — where you learn information very soon before a test, and don’t look at it again after — creates mostly short-term knowledge, which evaporates once the test is complete.
Most of us don’t plan to cram. It’s simply what happens when you’ve neglected to study, or forgot about a certain test.
That said, there are a few benefits of cramming, and some students make plans fully intending to cram. They claim it is a better use of time — why learn in an hour what one can memorize in the hallway outside the test room? Students are busy, and pressed for time, so there is merit to that — so long as you are aware that you aren’t instilling any long-term knowledge once that test is finished.
How Do You Cram Easily? 5 Tips
Are you someone who benefits from flash cards? Or do you prefer other memorization tricks — speaking words and definitions aloud, matching hand motions to vocabulary, or using mnemonics? Figure out what works for you, and use it.
2. Use mnemonics.
Pop quiz: when was the French Revolution? If you said 1789, great job! If you said 1830, 1832, or 1848, those are also revolutions in France — so, good job! — but the big one, with guillotines and a beheaded king, began in 1789. Now, how would you remember that? Make something up! Say to yourself that “The kings and queens were doing fine, but to commoners, 1789 was not a good time (hence rebellion).” It doesn’t have to be original or creative, as you can clearly see: the point is that you remember the number 1789.
3. Make a timeline (if memorizing dates).
When did Napoleon come to power? 1815. Oh, because he restored some order after the chaos of the French Revolution.
4. Practice delayed recall.
After you have memorized your list of words, take a quick break. Stretch, eat a snack, what-have-you, and then return and go through them again. The fact of unfocusing and refocusing will solidify that knowledge in your brain.
5. Review your notes the day of the test.
Even if the bulk of your cramming took place a day or so before, jog your memory the day of the test– remember delayed recall? This is more of the same. Look over your notes or quiz yourself during passing period or lunchtime, or en route to school (if you don’t drive yourself).
Don’t stress! The time for ‘next time I’ll study’ resolutions is after the test. Right now, take a deep breath and know you’ve done all you can (in the last forty-eight hours, anyway). Smile; science shows it boosts your mood. Relax, and don’t panic.
Techniques for Staying Focused While Cramming
As the hour grows late, it’s hard to stay focused, especially if you are learning by memorizing. Here are a few tips for staying awake and alert:
1. Use the tomato timer method.
Basically, you set a timer on your phone for 25 minutes. During those minutes, you buckle down and study. When the timer dings, you get a five-minute break! Repeat this, so that every half hour consists of five minutes of break and twenty-five minutes of focused study. Science shows that your brain can work for longer if given frequent breaks.
Fun fact: it’s called the ‘tomato timer’ method because computer programmers who use this method would use a timer shaped like a tomato.
2. Move around.
Do stretches, yoga, jumping jacks, or whatever you prefer to keep your blood flowing. Moving will make your brain wake up. I like to pace while I memorize — you do what works for you.
3. Go easy on caffeine.
If you usually do one cup of coffee, don’t chug three just because you know you have a long night ahead of you. Making yourself jittery won’t help your focus. Start with your normal one cup; if it doesn’t work, drink the second. Slowly.
4. Limit sugar intake.
Sugar rushes lead to sugar crashes, and that isn’t fun in the midst of studying. Instead, opt for healthy snacks! Then you can feel good about your eating habits while you knock out those vocab words.
You’ve read and listened to enough lectures about how social media spoils today’s youth, so I’ll skip it.
6. Avoid internet browsing.
If you were curious about Napoleon and found yourself on a Wikipedia page… why not? It’s probably more interesting than study blogs. But when you’re trying to cram information into your head, skimming long internet articles on something only peripherally related to your subject matter probably won’t do you any favors.
7. Set do-able reading goals.
If you’re facing over a hundred pages of reading in a night or two, don’t fret! But also don’t sit down intending to read all of them in one go. Commit to a chapter or two, and make it a realistic commitment which you can stick to. Then take a break and re-focus, so that your stamina lasts through those hundred-odd pages.
Why Shouldn’t You Cram for Tests?
Cramming for a test has its pitfalls. You know the feeling, in the middle of a test, when a date or name is on the tip of your tongue… but no matter how you grasp for it, it’s just beyond your reach. That’s frustrating. We’ve all been there, and we’ve sworn, like alcoholics rising from bed with pounding headaches, that we won’t be here again.
That’s one reason (also, don’t drink, kids).
The other reason is that long-term recall we’ve been talking about. Do you recall? Cramming leads to less of it, and that means more studying in the future.
What Should You Do Instead of Cramming?
Good study habits: You’ve done this, too. You know the feeling of walking in to a test that you’ve studied for, of reaching for knowledge and finding it easily at hand. Did you do the reading, or answer the study questions, or flip through flash cards every other day? Only you know. And you know you can do it again.
There are general tips and habits we all can follow:
Make a study plan.
Set aside time to study a few nights a week leading up to your test. If it’s in your plan, it’s easier to get done.
Make an outline.
Which concepts do you need to study? Which do you already know? Focus on your weakest points.
Do the reading.
It helps. (Or if it doesn’t — some textbooks are ancient, or overly verbose — then make your own call).
Summarize your notes.
Make outlines or write quick summaries of your notes. This makes you go over the information right after learning it, which cements it in your brain. Also, it makes for far quicker review: rather than reading over all of your notes, you can go over the outline, then hone in on the parts you don’t know.
Again, this makes you go over the information again. Additionally, seeing various events and personhoods laid out can help you spot patterns and cause-and-effect.
Make lists of vocabulary.
That way you can go through everything systematically, and leave nothing out.
Memorize your formulas.
In higher-level sciences, and especially AP science classes, sometimes we are blessed with a cheat sheet of formulas. This is a good blessing, but you’ll save a lot of time and page-flipping if you have the formulas already memorized. Also, sometimes the cheat sheet has the formulas simplified or manipulated so as to look unfamiliar, so it’s good to have your preferred orientation close at hand.
Wrapping Things Up: Does Cramming Work?
Ultimately, cramming works to an extent, and we all use it at one point or another. However, cramming is not the most effective way for long-term knowledge, which grows increasingly vital as you attend higher level classes. Therefore, it’s best to develop good study habits so that cramming is an option, but not the goal.
If you do have to cram, do it systematically. Make lists of what to study, so you can go through them and have an end in sight. Make up mnemonics (when was the French Revolution?). Make timelines and outlines to conceptualize information. Then, use delayed recall to further solidify your knowledge. Review your notes again the day of the test — and go forth and prosper!
A final note: if you’re reading this while deciding whether or not you should cram for a test? Stop reading, start studying!