Cramming for an exam is a time-honored practice. It's stressful, sure, but it's also a technique you've come to rely on working. Except that research shows it doesn't.
Photo by Leo Hidalgo
Surveys and studies have shown us some interesting things. Almost all (99%) students admit to cramming for exams. Yet even when shown evidence that spaced learning works better for them, a majority of students still felt that they learned better by cramming. The reason for this gap between what feels like it's working and what's actually working lies in familiarity. The BBC explains:
After six hours of looking at study material (and three cups of coffee and five chocolate bars) it's easy to think we have it committed to memory. Every page, every important fact, evokes a comforting feeling of familiarity. The cramming has left a lingering glow of activity in our sensory and memory systems, a glow that allows our brain to swiftly tag our study notes as "something that I've seen before". But being able to recognise something isn't the same as being able to recall it.
When assessing our own readiness for testing, we tend to rely on how familiar we feel with the subject. But familiarity with information is a bad predictor for being able to recall that information. A much better method is to reorganise that information in a way that supports long-term memorisation and to spread out your studying using a model called spaced repitition.
Memory: Why Cramming for Tests Often Fails [BBC Future]