- While cramming has a negative reputation, there are situations where it can be an effective study practice.
- Getting the right balance of study approaches, leveraging both long-term recall and cramming strategies when appropriate, can help student studying be more effective.
In recent years, multiple cognitive scientists have published books aimed at translating learning research into practical, validated study strategies for teachers and students that enhance learning. The trend began with Make It Stick and more recently, we have Understanding How We Learn and Powerful Teaching.
These books promote more effective study methods in comparison to the common method of cramming—when students concentrate most (if not all) of their study time right before an exam. Specifically, the studying methods explored include:
- Spacing: when a student spaces their studying with breaks in between sessions
- Interleaving: when a student alternates study time between different subjects
- Retrieval Practice: recalling from memory then applying concepts through strategies like self-testing
While all three strategies take more time and effort than cramming, they lead to better long-term learning. Given these results, it is tempting to conclude that cramming is never an effective learning strategy and thus should be avoided, but that would be a mischaracterization of the research.
Analyzing Cramming as a Studying Method
The key here is in long-term learning, which refers to recall after a delay of a week or longer since the last study session. If one looks at learning immediately after the last study session, cramming is typically as good—if not a bit better than—spacing, interleaving or retrieval practice.
The common issue surrounding cramming is that memories are often forgotten at a faster rate than memories from other strategies—resulting in poor long-term recall. While this is no surprise to cognitive scientists, they often assume that students value long-term learning more than immediate learning. Consider the description in Powerful Teaching:
[T]here is scientific evidence that cramming works! But only in the short term. When students cram, they forget more over the long term…..
My assertion is that from a student’s point of view, there are times in which cramming is a desirable strategy, but often riskier than students understand. Furthermore, teachers should be aware of this student-mindset and promote one or more of the superior long-term strategies.
Many students take pride in their ability to cram and still pass exams, with a history of successfully doing so. Over the course of a semester, I believe many students must resort to cramming due to bad time management, coinciding deadlines, exams, extracurriculars or plain procrastination.
I suspect most students have resorted to cramming for an exam or assignment at least once in their college career. I know I did. I pulled an all-nighter reading several chapters of new material. I did well on the exam, but I quickly forgot the material.
Considering the Student Learning Mindset
Think about these two possible mindsets:
Student A is curious and loves learning for its own sake. If this student is going to study something, they want to remember it for a long time.
Student B sees courses as boxes to check off on the way to getting a college degree. They want to do the least amount of work for a passing grade.
Which student thinks like an academic? Which student is more common in our classes? Student A is probably going to leverage some form of long-term studying because A wants to not only learn the material but retain that material. Student B is probably going to cram, because cramming is less effort than the long-term strategies and results in the same amount of immediate learning. Course content is only useful for getting correct answers on exams.
These hypothetical students are extremes of course, but I suspect many students turn into Student B for some courses, such as core or general education courses, especially if they fail to see any relevance of the course for themselves or if they find the course unengaging.
The Risks of Cramming
Even though students can learn through successful cramming, it’s a risky and stressful strategy. Students often underestimate how quickly they can read or complete an assignment, and can potentially wait too late to start cramming. They can only read part of the material or skim the material, then hope they’ve read enough relevant information to pass the exam. Because they are waiting to study until the last minute, there is little chance to check their understanding of materials, correct any misconceptions or answer any questions they might have.
These misunderstandings and knowledge gaps may result in a failing exam grade. Students who are already struggling or are aiming to simply pass are most at risk for failure due to poor cramming. These students can only hope they have studied enough to pass, and hope is the worst test preparation strategy there is.
Understanding Why Students Cram
How do students first learn to cram as a study strategy? I suspect they learn it in secondary schools with some success, then try to use the same strategy in college. In many high schools, a class often meets four or five days a week and lasts the entire school year. There are more assessments that cover less material and count less toward the course grade. Conditions in which cramming is likely to be successful.
In college, students meet two or three times a week for a one-semester course. There are fewer assessments covering more material, they are more spaced apart, and they have a greater impact on course grades. Students who were able to cram successfully in high school often find it a poor strategy in college.
In high school English classes, students often take vocabulary tests covering 15 to 20 words, tested using multiple-choice questions. Students can—and do—cram successfully on the exams, even though they’ll have relatively poor long-term retention of the vocabulary. Thus, they think that cramming is an effective study strategy when they go to college.
So What Does This Mean for Instructors?
Considering students have likely established that cramming works in high school, telling them they shouldn’t cram likely goes against their experience. Instead, consider these tips:
- Be honest about the pros and cons of cramming and explain why it is a risky strategy
- Demonstrate the value of course content and why effective long-term study strategies will serve them better in the future
- Demonstrate effective studying strategies and model those strategies in our teaching
We tend to think of teaching in terms of knowledge transmission, but teaching students about the significance of the information and teaching them effective strategies for learning are essential aspects of teaching if we want to impact our students.
Balancing Cramming with Long-Term Studying Methods
There are times in our lives when we need to cram. When we stay at a hotel, we need to remember the room number for a brief time, but not beyond our stay. That might be a time for cramming. One time a seasoned driver moved to another state and needed a new driver’s license. In line to retake the written test, he quickly went through the driver’s manual. By the time he got to the front, he had crammed enough to pass the exam. (OK, that man may or may not have been me.)
Both these scenarios illustrate another point about cramming: the more we know about a subject, the better we are at cramming. At work, cramming to meet a sudden deadline often works when we have background on the task. But what about when we know little about a subject, like first year college students taking an introductory course? That’s when cramming becomes most risky.
To help talk about study strategies and learning, I’ve prepared a discussion assignment you can use to elicit student beliefs about studying. Here we have three strategies:
- A methodical strategy where each chapter is read once
- A cramming strategy where chapters are read right before the exam
- A strategy based on spacing, interleaving, and retrieval practice—helping teachers discuss how people learn and how best to prepare for exams