Advice

Cramming isn’t that bad

Students may have method to their madness

written by 王羿杰  (Yijie Wang)
November 8, 2018 3:23 pm

Cramming. I’m doing it right now. I was supposed to submit this article yesterday. But I stood no chance against my inner procrastinator.  

Whenever exam dates are approaching, the Killam becomes packed with masses of hard-workers. The library seems to come to life like buzzing beehive. The academic spirit seems over the top. No one can explain the fascinating phenomenon behind this.
Cramming is the practice of studying intensively to absorb tons of information in short amounts of time, normally right before exams or assignments. This technique has been practiced by many students throughout history.  

At least one survey found that 99 per cent of students admit to cramming. This number is shocking and disappointing for most educators who believe cramming is fundamentally problematic.
Cramming is often linked with low grades and course withdrawals. Most academic experts don’t recommend it. But surprisingly, some studies show that cramming is an effective study strategy. Another study examined the weekly study diaries of 166 undergraduates. These students were also asked to complete an end-of-semester questionnaire measuring study habits.  

The results show that crammers’ grades were as good as, or better than, non-crammers. Many other researchers also found that there’s no significant correlation between procrastination and academic achievement. It might be good news for some procrastinators as their behaviours are finally justified.
How might cramming have a positive impact on academic success? 

A psychological phenomenon called the recency effect might play a role.
The recency effect is the tendency for things most recently learned to be easily recalled.  

During the cramming process, information is stored more easily as working memories than long-term memories. Working memories are those which you are consciously holding on to. They are “executable.”  

Imagine your brain as a workbench. Doing tests involves retrieving or activating memories from your tool bag – your memory storage – for active use on the workbench. If things are freshly learned, the brain is quicker to retrieve the memories. It takes less time to execute if the information is already on the bench.
The recency effect explains why crammers can sometimes rock exams. The memories from pulling all-nighters are still fresh.
Does it mean that cramming is a superior study strategy over studying consistently? Can students just simply not study until the last night, pinning their hopes on the night-before binge?   

Cramming can only help so far, but not all the way. It might be reasonable for merely getting through exams or assignments. But the information you cram into your head doesn’t stay long. Even crammers would agree that cramming isn’t a strategy to really learn the material. It all comes down to the concept of deep and shallow processing of information.
When you cram, information is processed at a shallow level and encoded by the brain based on the characteristics of the words, rather than the meaning. The knowledge you try to absorb is stored at a superficial level, which will be forgotten as soon as you finish your tests.
Long lasting memories can only be formed by deep and meaningful analysis of the material.  

When students really dive deep in the knowledge, especially when they create connections among different concepts, the meaning and significance of information is encoded and stored on a much deeper level. Whenever students need to handle their assessments, they simply retrieve or activate their long-term memories into “executable” working memories. Most importantly, the long-term memories don’t easily fade away.
Cramming could be great if university merely meant passing exams. But if going to a university means getting educated and informed, you can’t expect too much from solely relying on cramming.  

The science says this is not an opinion, but a fact.

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