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The Art of Cramming

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.

Cramming 101

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.

Study Myths and Tips

One of the things I distinctly remember from my highfaluting college theology classes is the reality of being sincerely wrong.  That is, people may think that what they believe in is the truth when it actually isn’t.

With all the input that the Information Age has given us about studying, it’s no surprise that quite a few myths have slipped into the picture and have disguised themselves as truth.  It’s time we separated some of these myths from the facts.

Unlearning the Myths

Somewhere along the course of our daily interaction with others, we’ve come to accept certain things as facts without first doing background checks.  The following are some examples of these “facts.”

Firstly, it’s very important to keep your mind relaxed while you study, yet there is such a thing as being too relaxed.  Unless your goal is really to fall asleep, studying while lying down on one’s bed is usually not a good idea.

You may have seen a movie or read a story about people falling asleep with their books under the pillows, or even listening to classes they had taped as they sleep.  The supposed premise behind this is that the brain will subconsciously study and learn while the body is resting.  Unfortunately, there is no substantial scientific basis for this.  In fact, you’re more likely to dream while you’re asleep rather than absorb and retain your lessons.

More is Less and Vice Versa

Have you ever got the distinct feeling that some professors of yours keep trying to ram as many lessons as possible down your throat in the shortest time possible?  More importantly, have you tried doing that yourself right before exams?

Human memory can retain an amazing amount of information, but it’s still limited.  That’s why it’s a good idea to practice studying a little a day, everyday, instead of force feeding it all a short time before the Day or Reckoning.

Other people have tried a different kind of techniques to help themselves study better—standing on their heads, for instance.  While it works great for circuses or stunts, the increased blood flow to your head will only stimulate brain activity for a short amount of time, and will actually be unhealthy in the long run.  Unless you’re in the mood for a major headache, avoid doing this.

Grasping the Facts

These days, it’s not uncommon to see students highlighting passages in books or typing down notes on their high-tech doohickeys.  Thing is, your memory is usually better served by jotting down notes the old-fashioned way.  No one really seems to understand why, but there’s something about writing something down by hand that involves more of your brain and helps you retain information better.

When trying to learn something, the way you attempt to learn it often determines how well you actually do learn it.  For instance, it’s usually a good idea to include a lot of visual aids for people who learn primarily through seeing.

Also, a purely theoretical approach isn’t quite as effective or as engaging as having students try their hand at an actual task.  Even the mistakes they make along the way are essential for learning and growth.

Respecting the Differences

People learn things in different ways, at different speeds, and with different preferences.  It’s not always necessary to have an atmosphere totally devoid of sound; there are actually people out there who prefer some relaxing background music or the yak-yakking of their peers’ voices.  The trick is to find out what works for you and to respect that.

There may be times, however, when people will need to get out of their comfort zones—to literally and figuratively step out into different and unfamiliar surroundings—just to be able to learn better.

A literal example of this involves one of my former philosophy professors.  Sometimes, he opted to hold his classes outdoors in the garden area of the university, instead of in the classroom.  Needless to say, it was highly conducive to some peripatetic learning.  Sometimes a change of scenery is all that’s needed to get those neurons fired up.

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Everyone needs a break now and then—especially in the midst of intense study.  A psychology professor of mine once pointed out that human energy levels go through cycles wherein they ebb and flow after about an hour to an hour and a half.  The way to make the most of these is to schedule short breaks after every hour or so of study.

This may come in the form of taking a light snack, going for a walk, doing some stretching, or doing anything that may serve as a reward for one’s hard work.  Whatever you choose to do, you’ll find that your body and mind will feel renewed and ready once you return.

The Body-Mind Connection

Make sure to get adequate amounts of rest and exercise.  The mind and the body are connected, so whatever affects one will eventually affect the other as well.

As far as sleep goes, note that it doesn’t necessarily have to be eight hours—what constitutes an adequate amount of sleep differs from person to person.  Tiger Woods needs something like fifteen hours, while some people I’ve heard of require as little as five.

On the other hand, the interesting thing about exercise is that it stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and feel-good substances.  We already know that having fun helps us to retain information better, and the same is true for physical activities that give us a natural high.

Doing Your Way into Feeling

Finally, pray and keep a positive attitude about your studies.  Yes, I know how easy it is to get worked up over an exam, but the good news is that it’s very possible to influence your emotions so that they can work in your favor.

In a past article I wrote on preparing for entrance exams, I mentioned a technique wherein exam takers spend some time in front of the mirror every day, telling themselves that they are more than capable of doing well on the test.

There’s a reason for this:  verbalize something to yourself frequently enough and you’ll eventually come to believe it.  This affects your emotions to the point where you actually turn your belief into reality.

Remember:  whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.  Arm yourself with the right attitude and you need not be intimidated by any subject or exam ever again.

Benefits of a Study Group

It’s not uncommon to see students cloistered together, especially as the dates for college entrance exams draw ever closer.  As a former college student myself, I can understand the synergistic appeal of joining up with friends and bouncing lesson ideas off of each other.

If you’ve never participated in a study group session before, or if you’d like to know how you can make the most of your own group, then read on.

Why a Group?

A former professor of mine once remarked that the more he taught a lesson, the better he understood it himself.  Now imagine that scenario taking place among three or more people.  It’s a brilliant win-win strategy, isn’t it?

Simply put, there’s something about explaining an idea to someone, arguing about it, and dissecting it that impresses the lesson more deeply upon your mind and that of anyone else who’s studying with you.  The fact that other people can point out important insights that you’ve missed, or help you with something that you’re not particularly good at is great, too.

Forming a Good Group

The scenario I’ve described above is an ideal one.  The sad truth is that not all study groups will prove conducive to learning, which is why you’ve got to take special care when forming your study group.

Ideally, a study group should consist of three to six people—large enough so as to keep each other focused, but not too large that someone gets left out.  As to who to include in your group, heed Robert Kiyosaki’s advice:  intelligent people surround themselves with others who are smarter than they are.  Find people who are really good at the subject you’re trying to learn and enlist their help.

Whenever possible, commit to meeting at the same specific time and place at least once a week.  Meeting for two to three hours max is a good rule of thumb, as the time limit will remind you to concentrate on the lessons at hand.

Seizing the Day

Even if you’ve gotten your group members together, there are still things you can do to help you make the most of your study session.  For one thing, it helps to elect a facilitator or a leader to keep things running smoothly.

Also, you may wish to delegate work according to the skills and talents of the members of your group.  For example, you can split a complicated topic into three subtopics, and have two people in your six-person group summarize their assigned sections for everyone.

Determine the specific points you’d like to cover ahead of time, as well as how much time you’ll spend on each, so that you can jump straight to business and stick to it.  Having clear, specific goals and a structured strategy means you’re more likely to redeem the time.

Final Considerations

While it’s understandable to want to cover as much ground as you can during a study group session, do take some time out for short breaks.  Studies show that human energy levels tends to ebb after about an hour or an hour and a half of work, so taking even five minutes to gain some perspective can refresh your mind for the rest of the session.

Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy your time together.  Yes, you’re there to study and learn, but if you can have fun bonding as a result, then so much the better.