Come on, we’ve all done it. You spend just a little too much time playing video games or hanging with friends then suddenly remember “Oh snap! I have a test tomorrow!” Now it’s cramming time, you’re pulling a caffeine filled all nighter jamming an entire textbook inside your brain in just a few hours.
Okay, maybe not that specific scenario but cramming is a study technique that is extremely common among students. A survey found 99% of students admit to cramming. It can be a lifesaver but does cramming actually work?
There is no doubt cramming is useful for emergencies. Having some information is better than none and it may even help you get through the test you’re facing. However, according to experts cramming is one of the worst ways to learn.
Why Doesn’t It Work?
When you cram, you are activating your visual cortex while processing the information in front of you. Thus, when you go on your test the next day and see the same words you saw yesterday, you say “Hey! I know this!” because it all seems familiar. However, recognizing and recalling are very different. Recall is the retrieval of information from memory while recognition is just identifying the information. Recall is supported by a network of different areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex and the temporal lobe, which organizes your thoughts and structures the way you remember.
The neural connections formed in your brain when cramming is temporary. That means it is not beneficial for retaining information or knowledge and is ineffective for long-term recall. In other words, you might remember some of the stuff in the test but it’ll fade from your memory almost completely in just a few days. Hence, the information you attain from cramming is just stored in your short term memory.
Spending so many hours just reading word after word or doing practice after practice can be incredibly stressful especially if you have a big test looming over your head. Scientist state that there is a strong causal link between stress and productivity. Thus, the stress of cramming makes learning largely ineffective.
Lack of Sleep
Research conducted by the UCLA suggests that ample sleep is tied to better academic achievements. Conversely, exchanging sleep time for studying time was found to have associations with worse academic performance even on the next day. Having a good night sleep after studying is actually good because it is when the information you’ve just acquired will be able to sink in your brain. Sleep is when your brain processes information, forms new memories and gels it all together.
Why Students Still Cram?
Yet, a lot us tend to assume cramming is a reliable if not effective means of studying. One study found spaced out learning to be more effective for 90% of participants but 72% still believed that cramming was better. Again, this is because students make the error of mistaking recognizing with recalling. This is why metacognition, thinking about thinking, is so important. Taking time to reflect, examine and question your studying habits is one of the most effective means to learn out there. Most of all, having a consistent studying schedule is key to earning good grades.
So, don’t cram! It might help you pass that test or even earn your degree/diploma but nothing will stick in your brain in the end. However, for studying tips and tricks that actually work, check out our Top 5 Best Study Hacks Backed By Science.