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To cram or not to cram?

Updated: Aug 4, 2022

Some people wait to the last minute to revise, feeling this sense of urgency helps them focus. Others revise for longer but use every last second up to the exam to literally "cram" their heads with information.

What exactly is cramming?

Cramming is the process of trying to store a lot of information in your mind, very close to the exam. It involves a lot of high intensity work and extended periods of concentration.

Does it work?

There are those studies which have shown on exam day, that cramming can yield benefits if it is done very close to the exam, the day before for example.

However it can also lead to stress and anxiety, both of which often then lead to poor concentration and tiredness.

So it can work, but it can also be bad, is it for me?

Who hasn't heard of someone who crammed at the last minute and sailed through their exams? It can be tempting, especially if you are already stressed about the exam. We all want that definitive solution, that magic bullet. But, for most people cramming is going to be more detrimental than helpful. If you increase anxiety, stress and tiredness just before your exam, not only are you likely to perform poorly in the exam, you are not going to retain the information.

What else should I try?

Top tips for revising and making it stick include:

  1. Learn and recall

When we learn new information it goes into our short term memory and most of it doesn't stick. So a trick to move something into your long term memory is to learn it, apply what you have learned, then recall it the next day. Go over your notes and apply it again, this is usually in form of doing question which require you to apply that knowledge. The more times you recall information over time, the more permanent the memory will be.

2. Find relationships

Understanding the relationships between the things you have learned is a great way to make knowledge more tangible. It is no longer information on its own, it is connected to other information. When it comes to memory and the brain, a neuron with many connections to other neurons is more accessible and less likely to be pruned away when tidying up happens in the brain. Memories are not actually confined to single neurons, but the principle remains the same.

How would you do this? You might use a diagram, or you might use a metaphor to describe something, or you might even use a word equation. We teach students to put things in terms of X and Y when asked to do parallel reasoning questions. These are word based questions involving a passage of text and are not numerical questions. However, far from just providing a strategy, it helps students understand with greater depth, by providing a metaphor.

3. Teach someone else!

This may sound like a weird learning strategy, but once you have the basics down, try teaching someone else. This makes your brain recall and reorganize the information a way you wouldn't if you are just trying tot take it in. It also makes you critically evaluate the information and the process and is fantastic for aiding your own learning.

4. Taking breaks and looking after yourself

Learning on a tired brain doesn't work well, so at any time you are having trouble concentrating take five. But when you do take a break, leave your study area and go somewhere else, get some fresh air if you can.

Make sure you rest, a rested brain works a lot better than a tired brain.

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