The Downside of Cramming

What’s the best way to approach learning? How can we teach our kids more effective study strategies?

I imagine that we can all recall times when we have “crammed” for a final exam. For some, that strategy may be effective in the short term – perhaps yielding a good grade on that particular test. However, more often than not, much of that information is likely forgotten shortly thereafter. Not only is this approach ineffective for long-term retention of information, but many students who wait until the last minute to study end up staying up late and losing out on much needed sleep. So, what does research suggest as being more effective study strategies, not only for achieving a good grade but also for lasting learning and retention of information?

In a new book, “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens,” Benedict Carey discusses how to maximize learning based on research findings of brain science, learning and memory. One way to improve learning is to move away from one, long and focused study session the night before (i.e., cramming). This places a high demand on the brain to try to maintain concentration and leaves less energy for actual learning. In addition, studying only once does not signal to the brain that the information is important, making it more likely to be forgotten. Studying begins the process of learning. Reviewing requires retrieval or actively pulling out information. In other words, reviewing the information a few days later forces the brain to retrieve information, an active process that changes and enriches brain networks, and at the same time signals to the brain that the information is important and should be remembered. Beyond reviewing, other ways to flag information as important is to engage in more active learning/reviewing approaches, such as teaching the information to a classmate, self-testing, and re-writing information on flashcards. Distributed or spaced learning is also effective, particularly if done at appropriate intervals. Research has shown that if a test is a week away, it’s most helpful to review the information one to two days after the first study session. If it’s a month away, then studying at one week intervals is most effective. Another helpful strategy is to change the study environment periodically (e.g., studying in the library, at home, in the kitchen, at a coffee shop). Studying in different environments helps to create new associations and thereby facilitates retention and retrieval of information later on. Lastly, the importance of sleep cannot be minimized with regard to its benefits for learning. In fact, research suggests that sleep is crucial in solidifying learning – in effect putting the “finishing touches” on what has been studied.

Bottom line: To optimize learning (and success), we should encourage our kids to avoid cramming. Instead, they should plan ahead so that they can study over several sessions, use active learning approaches, study in different environments, and get a good night’s sleep.