Adults are almost unanimous on this one: cramming is bad. But for most students, the practice is a common, if necessary evil. With too many things to do and too little time to study, cramming is the inevitable last resort you’ll have to use when you get home from a party and realize you have a major test first thing the next day.
First things first: there’s a fine line between cramming and studying. Cramming uses your short term memory, the kind for remembering what to get from the grocery next week. Long-term memory – the one teachers want you to use – is for recalling the quadratic formula decades after it was taught. Cramming will amply equip you for the test, but don’t expect your midterm cram session to last you until the final exam.
The secret of successful cramming is knowing exactly what to study. When you review just the concepts that’ll show up on the test, you minimize ‘wasting’ time on other things that won’t earn you points on the exam. Your goal is to study only what’s needed so that you get a better mastery of those lessons that you do study – the quality-quantity tradeoff.
- Ask your professor for the exact coverage of the exam. In a math exam, say, you’ll want to know the kinds of equations you’ll have to solve. Ask science teachers on the depth and breadth of the coverage, as some exams can cover topics shallowly but tackle a wide variety of concepts.
- Borrow notes from a more conscientious classmate or – better yet – consult your own if you have them. In most cases, the stuff the teacher lectured on will be the same things that’ll show up on tests.
- Get sample exams from upperclassmen. Teachers very rarely make exams entirely from scratch, more often relying on question banks and test guidelines set by the department. If you can get your hands on a sample exam or an old questionnaire, it’s very likely that you’ll see similar questions on your own test.
List down exactly what you have to study and then arrange them according to relevance to each other. It’s much easier to read, absorb and recall information if they’re somehow interconnected and interrelated, rather than trying to take in disparate chunks of data. In a chemistry test, for example, you’d do well to memorize the functional groups of carbon in one go instead of taking a couple of groups, studying entropy and then back to groups.
Use your list as your study guide for the test, and then divide your time accordingly. This is a much more crucial step if you’re studying just the night before the exam because you have extremely little time to cram and even less to waste. Allot more time for those topics that will be given greater weight in the exam; in fact, you should make your effort for any given topic proportional to the number of points you could get for it.
The Right Recipe for Cramming
Cramming is never guaranteed to be effective, but you can help drastically improve your chances simply by having the right tools and learning aids on hand. The fact that you’re cramming already means that you don’t have time to read through too many explanations and paragraphs of text. Wherever possible, cut down on the amount of reading you’ll have to do and prepare everything in as test-ready a form as you can.
Find reviewers. Yeah, you’ll probably find all the information you need in the book. The info you need, however, will most probably be buried in lines of text, requiring you to read a paragraph or two. Reviewers, professionally made or otherwise, will have you read only what you’ll need for the test. If you don’t have a friend who can lend you some, look on the Internet for some pre-made ones.
Isolate key terms and concepts. Set the most test-critical topics aside and condense them into a quick reference or ‘cheat’ sheet. For, say, a physics exam, putting all the kinematic formulas into a single sheet of paper will be a big boon for the calculation part of the test. History exams are best dealt with when you summarize key events into a single page. Bring it all the way to the testing room so you can get some last-minute cramming done.
Memorize only the essentials. Committing every single word in the book to memory is the worst way to cram because the key facts will be harder to remember the next day. Prioritize your memory for the most important names, dates and formulas, and then be prepared to derive or deduce all the other parts of the lesson. It’ll take you a little extra time come exam period, but you won’t have as much trouble recalling important things.
Know Your Gameplan
Each person studies differently, and your parents likely find it weird how you need your iPod or a loud television to be able to study. At this point, you should already be aware of your ideal conditions for studying, because cram time means you’ll have to create each and every one of those conditions.
- Set your TV or DVD player up beforehand so that you don’t waste time switching channels
- Prepare a playlist on your MP3 player so that the tunes can keep on going
- If possible, lock your door or isolate yourself so that you’re less likely to be disturbed once you get started
- Hide your mobile phone somewhere so you won’t get distracted by friends’ text messages; chances are they’re not taking a test the next day
- Have food, snacks and waking aids (coffee, gum, soda and the like) to help keep you energized throughout your cram session
As much as you’d want to cram the night away, the reality is that you’re less effective the longer you keep at the books. The human brain wasn’t made for focusing on just one task for extensive periods of time, so be prepared to take a break every couple of hours or so. Fifteen minutes to stretch and replenish your snacks should be helpful. Catnaps are also great, but only if you’re able to easily wake up within ten to fifteen minutes.
There’s an advantage to cramming at night because there are usually fewer distractions and disruptions once the rest of the house or dorm is asleep. If you’ve got more than an evening to prepare for your exam, take care of all your other tasks and chores prior to your cram session. You’ll be more effective if you go in two to three continuous stretches compared to intermittent sessions of study and distractions.
Yes, it’s true that cramming isn’t learning. If all you want is to pass tomorrow’s test, though, it’s a fairly efficient method to achieve that goal. You just have to know how to cram properly in order to successfully pull through that grueling test the next day.