Lesson learned: Iterative studying works better than cramming

November 28, 2018 — by Rohan Kumar

Staying up all night to study for a massive APUSH final is not fun. It’s hours and hours of staring at a textbook while random concepts rebound off your skull. For five seconds, the fleeting notion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK hovers in the tired recesses of the hippocampus before it floats on out.

Students often sleep late in order to study for upcoming tests, attempting to cram a plethora of random facts into their brains. It is hardly surprising that this strategy is ineffective.

The truth is, the closer to the test date that a student studies, the less likely he or she is to remember the concepts. To synthesize arguments and craft more complicated responses, the brain must be able to make connections. Briefly barraging a person’s brain with ideas does not permit it to make long-lasting connections.

Worse still, this surface-level studying tactic ultimately leads to the concepts being forgotten within one or two days. Many subjects are taught incrementally, building on previous chapters and making it critical that students thoroughly understand the previous ideas. Committing these concepts to long-term memory also means less time is necessary to study for finals.

Additionally, cramming can be extremely stressful, since it comes with little room for error. Becoming distracted for 20 minutes could mean disaster for the next day’s test if there is a lot of material to cover. The stress itself along with the lethargy that comes from sleeping late can make it harder to remember information, leading to decreased productivity.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: Study for weeks ahead of time. Not only does this tactic permit studying at times of peak productivity, but it also allows students to revisit concepts in order to input it into their long-term memory. According to Oxford Learning, spreading out study times without increasing the total amount of time spent increases retention.

Studying ahead of time is far more effective, but can take more work in terms of self-control and planning. It’s difficult for many students to force themselves to study in this common-sense fashion, especially when they do not feel the pressure of having a test the next day.

Setting deadlines is extremely important to manage studying time. Allotting an hour each day can help enforce discipline and result in more effective learning. Other ways to set deadlines include aiming to complete a certain number of chapters per month. These deadlines ultimately decrease stress by alleviating the workload right before the test.

Though it may be the default studying mode for high school students (if they study at all), cramming leaves much to be desired. It is stressful, ineffective and completely unnecessary. By incorporating deadlines and committing to studying ahead of time, students can learn concepts faster, longer and in much more depth.