Ah.. the oft asked and seldom avoided cramming questions.
Writing a blog about how to study inevitably leads to students asking about how to cram for a test.
The truth is, most students attempts at cramming for a test are downright crazy.
The traditional approach to cramming is more of a masochistic ritual than a productive study strategy.
Cramming isn’t the best way to approach studying but there is a right way to cram for a test and there is a wrong way.
Before getting into the details, I think it’s worth exploring the most important aspect of cramming.
If you run into the need to cram then you’ve already sacrificed points on your final score.
The human brain isn’t a computer that can store and access information instantaneously. Cramming is one of the least effective ways that you can study information. Cramming is sacrificing a ton of potential knowledge and points.
Before you cram, consider just accepting a low score on the test. When you cram, you give your test score a boost. If you’re like most students, you won’t score an absolutely miserable score. It will just be a little bit of an unpleasant grade. A little unpleasantness won’t motivate you to study properly for your next test.
It will just encourage you to procrastinate until you’re required to cram again. Cramming is an inefficient and painful experience. Bombing a test once or twice might just motivate you to actually study properly.
Of course, if you still wish to cram for that test… there are some factors that you need to pay attention to.
When you’re cramming for a test, your goal shouldn’t be to learn all of the information on the test.
There is usually way too much information to get any understanding of it all in a single night. It’s much better to focus on only the essential bits of information.
If your teacher gave you any handouts about the test, this is the time to look at it closely.
If the teacher gives you any hints of the most important aspects on that test then make those your areas of focus.
If you have any reason to doubt something is on the test then you should consider not studying it at all.
It will bite you but your goal is to learn the essential information well (not all the information poorly.)
Instead of focusing on learning more and more, look for any excuse to eliminate information from your study session. This process can take a while and feel unproductive but it can end up paying off big when it finally comes to test time.
The traditional cram with massive amounts of information leads to test takers feeling like every answer is on the tip of their tongue (but they just can’t find it.) This elimination strategy makes sure you know which information you know better (and you know which information you’re not getting.)
This leads to a much more predictable score. If you prioritized right, that score will be a high one.
Dirty Tricks To Cram For A Test
When it comes to cramming, you should be looking to use every stupid memory trick that you know. I call them “dirty tricks” because they don’t help you get a deeper understanding of the knowledge.
They’re just helpful at remembering the information.
This is particularly helpful for test taking but not as helpful for overall learning. While, in the typical study routine, you should only use them occasionally, in a cram session, you should use them as often as possible.
In particular, focus on using mnemonics to remember anything you could reasonably fit into something memorable.
Some other memory methods you might want to consider are the loci method, singing information to a tune, and silly imagery.
Ultimately, if a memory strategy is quick and effective for you then use it. To learn more about memory strategies check out 6 Memory Strategies You Need In Your Study Toolbox.
These kinds of tricks for studying work in the short term but not as good in the long term.
Keep in mind that you’re not learning the information deeply. You’re just using a trick to remember them for the test.
If you’re actually interested in a deep understanding you’ll need to invest more time (maybe after the test when you have that time.)
Studies have repeatedly shown the weaknesses in the human brain’s ability to study.
After an hour of studying, the efficiency of studying has dropped dramatically.
While early in a study session, you learn a ton of information, the longer that study session gets the lower that rate of learning becomes.
A short break can cause that rate of learning increase again.
In general, try not to cram for a test more than 25 minutes at a time.
After 25 minutes of studying take, at minimum, a 15 minute break.
This is a balance between peak efficiency and lots of study time. Those breaks increase your study efficiency to the point that it makes up for the lost time studying.
The breaks are just as important as the studying.
Get To Bed
No… do not pull an all-nighter.
When you stay up all night (or even extremely late) to study, you’re running into a list of potential problems.
The lack of sleep can cause you to not remember the information you’re learning, it can cause you to feel exhausted and useless during the test, it can increase your stress levels for the test, it can interrupt your long term sleep patterns to hurt later school assignments.
In short, it sucks.
Even if staying up all night increased your score by 5 or 10% (which is unlikely,) it wouldn’t be worth the other risks.
Your test score would become volatile because extreme tiredness could even cause you to crash and miss the test completely. Sure, it’s unlikely but it only has to happen once to destroy your final grade.
(It’s a lesson you’ll learn after that one mistake.)
Cramming needs to be treated very carefully.
Most people that suck at tests, suck at tests because they stress out over them.
The better you are at relaxing during a test, the better you’re going to take the test. Cram sessions are just wild messes of stress.
The average cramming student stares at their textbook for hours drinking caffeine and quizzing themselves painfully.
Occasionally, they get distracted by painful thoughts about how stupid they are for waiting until the last minute. Maybe they worry that they’ll fail. All of these are a recipe for study disaster.
You might as well not be cramming for a test when you’re studying like this for long periods of time. It helps so little that it’s hardly worth doing.
You need to keep your cram session low stress.
If you find yourself stressing over the cram then take a break and find a way to relax.
A little stress isn’t horrible but if your stress is taking over then you might as well not be studying.
The stress you build during the cram for a test will likely transfer into the actual test, that’s going to kill any productive studying you got done. Being stressed during a test can cause serious problems with memory.
Last Second Studying
If you’re feeling stressed out then skip this step and focus on relaxing before the test. This will just risk increasing your stress levels.
Right before you take the test, (within 15 minutes of the class) take out your study material and go over the material one last time.
The human brain has a surprisingly powerful short term memory. It’s not perfect but by running over the information quickly before the test you’ll be much more likely to remember the information when you need it during the test.
Do not increase the last second studying beyond 15 minutes before the class.
In fact, consider cutting it down to 5 or 10 minutes. The sooner you take the test after reading the information, the better you’re going to be able to utilize your short term memory.
To Cram Or Not To Cram
Regularly deciding to cram for a test is a necessary evil for some students.
While I recommend avoiding the cram whenever possible, I certainly can’t claim to have been above it at times in my past.
I’ve also learned ways to study in less than 15 minutes a night that provide results dramatically better than any cram I’ve ever participated in.
Cramming is okay for a last minute emergency but never let the cram become your only study tool.
The cram is not the most efficient way to learn. In fact, it’s one of the least efficient.
You could expect to learn the same information you learn in a cram in half the time using a smarter study method. Every cram you participate in is just another massive waste of your time (it’s also usually pretty stressful.)
If you can help it, don’t cram. If you can’t help it then learn how to cram for a test right.