Cramming works, but only until tomorrow

Cramming

I have written about cramming before or to be precise it was in the title of a previous blog but the main focus was on the benefits of attempting exam questions. As a result, I feel I should say far more about what many students reluctantly admit is their most commonly used study method.

Cramming is the process of leaving everything until the last minute and then studying intensely in a relatively short period of time. Students know they shouldn’t do it and yet the “cramming badge of honour” is often worn with pride. It is accompanied by the boast, “anyway I work better under pressure”.

Better under pressure

Yerkes and Dodson (Yerkes-Dodson Law) famously put rats in a maze and administered electric shocks as they attempted to choose between a black and white door. They noticed that mild shocks improved the rats’ performance until a certain point, after which it greatly decreased. A chart of the shock strength versus performance takes the shape of an inverted U. And although there has been some criticism as to the exact findings, the concept that people perform better under pressure is true but only to a point, and of course judging when that point is reached is personal and arguably impossible.

The conclusion therefore has to be that creating a stressful situation by leaving everything until the last minute is not a particularly sensible strategy. An exam environment brings its own high level of stress without you having to manufacture your own.

Back to cramming

In June and July, I identified 6 scientifically proven learning strategies, and it is here that we can find the answer to the question, does cramming work?

Spaced practice is the process of studying over time compared with studying the same content but intensely at the end, normally prior to a test. The results as to which one is best is conclusive, spacing your learning is far better because you will not only improve what is called retrieval strength but also storage strength. The implications being that you will you be able to recall what you have learned quickly and the information will be stored waiting for when you might need it in the future.

However, studying at the end, effectively cramming also works, it has to, students have been using this method of revising since the very first exam. But, and there is a but, it only helps with retrieval strength, that is you will only be able to retrieve the information for a short period of time, perhaps as little as a day. Should you want to recall what you learned at some point in the future it won’t be there. The reason, a short burst constantly topped up will keep the information in short term memory but due to the lack of time the brain is unable to consolidate what you have learned, effectively taking it into long term memory. There is some evidence to support the view that this consolidation takes place when you are a sleep, something else that students who cram often don’t get, but that is a sufficiently large enough topic it would need a future blog.

Conclusions

Cramming does work for short term chunks of information for example formulas, key words that remind you of knowledge stored in long term memory, formats, illustrations etc. Simple memory techniques such as acronyms and acrostics are great and should be used, they are part of the tool kit of a professional student. But they are in addition to a more structured and spaced out way of learning, not an alternative.

Here are a few more resources.

This past blog gives specific advice – Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

Video (5m) – How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS – This is worth watching 472, 000 others have.

Video (2.5m) – How to Cram for a Test.

 

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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)