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Last minute study works, but...


“Many students reluctantly admit that Cramming is their most used study method” says Kaplan Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley Smith.

Cramming means "last minute intense study".

Students know they shouldn’t do it, yet the “cramming badge of honour” is often worn with pride. It’s often accompanied by the boast, “Anyway, I work better under pressure”.

Better under pressure

Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson were early 20th century psychologists who specialised in the link between arousal and performance.

They famously put rats in a maze and gave them electric shocks when they attempted to choose between a black and white door. With this they noticed that mild shocks improved the rats’ performance, up to point. After that ‘point’ it greatly decreased, thus proving that in small doses: stress is good.

The concept that people perform better under pressure is true, to an extent. As Stuart points out ‘judging when that point is reached is personal and arguably impossible’.

The conclusion therefore has to be that creating a stressful situation by leaving everything until the last minute is not particularly sensible. Exam environments bring their own level of stress, without needing to add extra pressures.

Proven Learning Techniques

Last month we identified 6 scientifically proven learning techniques, and it’s here that we first mention Cramming.

It highlighted, conversely, that Spaced Practice which is the process of studying steadily over time, prior to a test is also of value. According to Stuart, it’s clear which method is better in the long run:

‘Spacing your learning is far better because you will not only improve what is called retrieval strength but also storage strength.’

This means that you’ll recall what you’ve learned quickly, and the information will be stored longer term for future use.

Although effective Cramming can work, you will only be able to retrieve the information for a short period of time, perhaps as little as a day. Should you want to recall what you learned in the future, it won’t be there.

“A short burst constantly topped up will keep the information in short term memory but due to the lack of time the brain is unable to consolidate what you have learned, effectively taking it into long term memory.”

Is there room for sensible Cramming?

Cramming does have some value for short term chunks of information. It’s effective for things like formulas, or key words that remind you of knowledge stored in the long term memory (formats, illustrations etc).

Simple memory techniques such as acronyms and acrostics are great and should be used as they’re part of the tool kit of a professional student. However, in order to be most impactful, they should be used in conjunction with spaced practice, not as an alternative.

For more information on Cramming and other learning strategies, register to watch our recent webinar delivered by CIMA and our Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley Smith.