Why cramming works and making stuff up is okay

Will making stuff up

Will making stuff up

To a certain extent I have spent much of my career making things up. When I was a student that was not the case, I listened and learned and so when I spoke, I spoke with confidence that what I was saying was correct, because someone had just told me it was. Yet knowing is only the start, and in some ways a poor relative of the “figuring it out for yourself” technique.  I am reminded of quote from the film Good Will Hunting, which along with Dead Poets capture some really magical moments in learning.

Will Hunting – “See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinkin on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life.” “One, don’t do that.” “And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f***in education you coulda got for a dollah fifty in late charges at the public library.”

 Question practice – the secret to exam success

Having had no real formal educational training I have been exploring ideas as to why some techniques work and others don’t, why it is that student A passes yet student B who did exactly the same, failed. One clear observation from over twenty years in the high stakes exam world is that the most important activity that a student can engage in is, question practice. As a lecturer I would make statements, explain them using real world examples, get students to laugh, and maybe even enjoy the subject. But, the very best learning seemed to happen when the student was required to do a question. So it was with great interest that I read of some research that came out of the US in 2011, it’s called Retrieval Practice.

 Retrieval practice – the power of cramming

Retrieval practice is simply the process of retrieving something from memory.  So for example if I asked you, who was the Prime Minister that took us into the European Economic Community in 1973, you might say, on reflection Edward Heath. You already knew the answer but were forced to recall it. If however you were not sure who it was and were subsequently told (given feedback) it was Edward Heath and that Harold Wilson in 1975 held the first referendum, you are likely to remember both. But the most interesting and perhaps surprising aspect of this research is that not only can you recall the facts, it also leads to a deeper learning in so much that you can answer questions on related information. This in some ways gives credence to the idea that cramming information, maybe not at the last minute could be beneficial, not simply because you will remember it for a few hours’ but that it will lead to deeper learning.

Mark McDaniel is a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis

“We think of tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student’s head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes.” “Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable and more accessible.”

Jeffrey Karpicke, a professor of cognitive psychology at Purdue University

“Retrieving is the principal way learning happens.” “Recalling information we’ve already stored in memory is a more powerful learning event than storing that information in the first place,” he says. “Retrieval is ultimately the process that makes new memories stick.” “Not only does retrieval practice help students remember the specific information they retrieved, it also improves retention for related information that was not directly tested.”

Final thoughts

And so I am pleased to say that what I have observed in the classroom, that question practice improves exam results might be a little simplistic and that not only does it help students pass exams they might actually have been learning something at the same time 🙂

If you want to read more follow these links

To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test (New York Times)

Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning (Scientific American)


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