Exam season is coming up thick and fast and for many of us it’s time to face facts – for one reason or another we haven’t lived up to the model student figure we’ve convinced our parents we are and instead we’re nose-to-nose with a couple of days of intense cramming to pull us through.


With all the distractions of a burgeoning summer and uber-active social lives, it can be very difficult to set aside sufficient time each day dedicated to knuckles down, solid revision so the question is – does cramming work and should it ever be encouraged?

The real truth is that the jury is still out on this one. Conflicting research is published every year and definitive answers are hard to pick out. I’ve pulled apart the waffle from several sources and compiled a for and against list, with a few cramming tips and facts tacked on for good measure. I’ll leave it for you to decide.

It’s the night before a big exam and it becomes painfully obvious you’re underprepared. Faced with the spectre of a looming exam you need to decide: To cram or not to cram?

The case against cramming

Learning all the material in one night is definitely not ideal. If you furiously write an essay in one evening you won’t have time to edit or proofread it properly, the same applies to revising for exams.

It’s bad for your body. The stress and brainache that comes with a fevered 12th hour cramming sesh is going to weigh heavy on your body and affect your performance. The fact that it was fuelled by sugary snacks and caffeine heavy energy drinks is only going to add to your grogginess come exam time. Remember – healthy body = healthy mind.

New research suggests sleep deprivation is a significant hidden factor in lowering the achievement of school pupils. Without sleep, the brain struggles to absorb and retain ideas so you might want to re-think that all-nighter you’re planning…

Cramming only deposits information in your short term memory. The vast majority of material reviewed in cramming sessions is not learned, not in the kind of way needed for cumulative final exams, future courses or life skills anyway. To truly retain what we learn the information must be stored in our long-term memory and that takes weeks of dedicated revision.

 The case for cramming

Ok, so you’ve crammed ahead if an important exam and come out with a fat A to show your chums. Whatever information you stuffed in isn’t likely to hang around for the long term – one, maybe two days – but it was there long enough to get the result so who cares? There’s no doubt that studying gradually and methodically is better for long-term understanding but if you get your mark, you get your mark.

Each and every one of us retains information in different ways. What’s good for you may not be good for me. Some of us actually favour short bursts of intense revision over a long term, bitty approach. If it works for you stick to it.

Cramming (if effective) frees up time to enjoy life while at the same time getting the revision done. Time spent relaxing and relieving exam anxiety is as good as time spent revising.

If your back’s against the wall and cramming is the only option left on the table, try these steps. Be selective – don’t try to learn it all when you cram but instead pick out a few of the most important elements of the course and learn them inside out. If you cover a lot of material lightly, chances are you won’t remember any of it during the exam. Spend 25% of your time on new material and the other 75% on drilling that material.

Drill yourself with the flashcards and other learning techniques that make information more meaningful. The key to cramming is recitation so repeat ad nauseam. Going over your material again and again will sear facts into your brain like no other study method and the better you organize the information, the more likely you’ll remember it.

Two days of cramming is better than one. Three days is better than two. Focus first on the material you’re most comfortable with or are close to mastering then move on to increasingly more difficult stuff.

Chances are you’re not alone and one of your procrastinating brethren is equally fraught the night before the exam. Invite them over and go over course material as a pair, reviewing and quizzing each other as you go. Two heads are better than one.

Cramming facts

A survey asked people how they studied for exams – working on understanding the underlying facts; learning by rote or cramming; or no particular method:

* 32% admitted to having used short-term cramming techniques to get through their exams and that this approach is increasing, with 48% of respondents under 24 employing the method.

* 34% of women relied on cramming, as opposed to 28.8% of men.

* 48% of under-24s crammed; only 17.4% of over-55s said they did so in their last exam.

* 40% of successful British students would fail their exams if they re-sat them a year later.

Source: Chartered Institute of Education Assessors and BBC News.



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