How to cram for an exam

This article originally appeared on The conversation.

Across the country, school and college students are hitting the books to prepare for exams. If you find yourself in this position, you may be trying to remember information that you first learned a long time ago and have completely forgotten – or that you didn't learn effectively in the first place.

Unfortunately, cramming is a very inefficient way to learn well. But sometimes it is necessary to pass an exam. And you can incorporate what we know about how learning works into your revision to make it more effective.

a lots of research evidence How memory works over time shows that we initially forget new information very quickly, after which the process of forgetting slows down.

In practice, this means that highly compressed study schedules lead to a catastrophic amount of forgetting.

A better option is to spread learning a particular subject more gradually and over a longer period of time. This is called the “distance effect” and it leads to better and longer retention of skills and knowledge.

Research has found that we remember information better if we leave some time between first studying something and revisiting it, rather than doing so right away. This works even for short timescales – a delay of a few seconds in learning a small piece of information, such as a few words. And it also works when the delay between study sessions is long much longer.

In the classroom, spreading out the practice may mean reviewing and practicing the material the next day, or putting off homework for a few weeks rather than reviewing it as soon as possible. As a rule, psychologists have suggested that the best time to re-study material is when it is on the computer edge of being forgotten – not before, but not after either.

But this is not the way things are learned throughout the school year. When students come to exam time, they have forgotten much of what they have studied before.

Better cram

When it comes to actual learning – being able to remember information in the long term and apply it in new situations – cramming doesn't work. We can hardly call it 'learning' if information is forgotten a month later. But if you have an exam to pass, cramming can lead to a temporary boost in performance. Additionally, you can integrate the spacing effect into your prop work to make it more efficient.

It's better to spread your practice of knowledge on a given topic over weeks, so if you have that long before an important exam, plan your revision schedule so that you cover the topics multiple times. Instead of spending a two-hour block on a particular topic, study it for an hour this week and another hour in a week or so.

If you don't have that much time, it's still worth taking smaller breaks between practice sessions. If your exam is tomorrow, practice the most important topics today in the morning and again in the evening.

Learning is also more effective when you actively retrieve information from memory, rather than rereading or underlining your notes. A good way to do this, taking into account the spacing effect, is to take practice tests. Revise a topic from your notes or textbook, take a half-hour break and then take a practice test without the help of your books.

An even simpler technique is a “brain dump”. After studying and taking a break, write down everything you can remember about the topic on a blank piece of paper without checking your notes.

Change the way we teach

A change in teaching practice may be needed to prevent students from having to cram material they only half-remember into exams.

But my research suggests that teachers tends to agree with the idea that consolidation of a topic should happen as quickly as possible, rather than separate practice in ways that would actually be more effective.

Teachers are overloaded and making heroic efforts with the time they have. But integrating the spacing effect into teaching doesn't have to require radical changes in the way teachers work. Often it is as simple as doing the same thing another schedule.

Research has shown The most effective way to combine practice tests and the spreading effect is to participate in practice tests in the first lesson, followed by at least three practice moments at widely spaced intervals. This is entirely possible within the typical pattern of the school year.

After the first lesson, further practice can take place, for example, through a homework task after a few days' delay, and then some sort of test or mock exam after a further while. The revision period before the exams would then be the third opportunity for consolidation.

Incorporating effective self-tests and deferred practical exercises into education would lead to less stress and less ineffective cramming. Exam time should be for consolidation, rather than relearning things that have been forgotten. The result would be better long-term retention of important knowledge and skills. As a bonus, students also gain a better understanding of how to study effectively.

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