Why Cramming for a Test Doesn’t Work, According to Science

Why Cramming for a Test Doesn’t Work, According to Science

Cramming for tests doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop students from waiting until the last minute to study. Some even believe that reading and reviewing material under pressure will result in an adrenaline rush that pushes them to perform at their top ability. I am guilty of having done this dozens of times throughout my academic career, but I’m here today to bust the myth of its effectiveness once and for all. To do that, let’s look at what the science says—and what you should do instead.

What does science say about cramming under stress?

Science says: Don’t do it. It’s that simple. Research from 2008 concluded that “short-term stress lasting as little as a few hours can impair brain-cell communication in areas associated with learning and memory.” A researcher at Stanford University has even gone as far as to say that cramming can backfire, making you remember less of what you studied when you need to recall it.

Other researchers came to a similar conclusion in 2016, but went deeper in pointing out that there are already a lot of stressful elements at play in learning: Interpersonal conflicts in the classroom, for instance, cause stress, as does difficult work. That stress is already weighing on you when you study or endeavour to do well in school, so adding to it by procrastinating until the last minute and trying to cram is only going to make it worse. Cramming is a self-fulfilling loop of bad vibes and poor outcomes, anyway. If you wait until 10 p.m. the night before a test to study, your professor is much less likely to answer an emailed question about something you need clarity on, which compounds the stress. The writing centre is closed. Classmates aren’t responding to questions in the group chat. The list of stressors grows.

What can you do instead of cramming?

Use distributed practice to map out a study schedule early on in the semester, coordinating your study days every 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the amount of time until each test. (More on how to do that here.) Use simple methods to promote recall, like the Leitner flashcard technique, and make sure you’re studying in a calm environment, as far from stressors as you can get. It’s not possible to totally eradicate stress from your life, but you should eliminate or reduce it as much as you can. It takes more planning and effort to study using distributed practice and spaced repetition, but you’ll be sure to remember more for your test.

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