Why Cramming Doesn’t Work

Thursday night, 9pm. A high school student finishes up dinner and sits down at the computer to check social media before going to bed. They notice a few status updates by friends complaining about the test that they have to take tomorrow.

“Hmm, Alex and I have almost every class together” the student thinks, “what class could he have a test in?”

Then it hits them: the test is in their geometry class, and they haven’t studied at all.



Students end up studying late very frequently, with as many as 99% of a student poll admitting to last minute studying (AKA ‘cramming’). Sometimes students accidentally forget about a test, and sometimes it’s just procrastination. Some students think it’s the best (or only) way to study. Some students even have a cramming system, intentionally blocking out the night before a big test to cram in all the studying in that they possibly can. “I’ll just sleep after school tomorrow”, is something that I’ve heard more than once.

Despite parent and teacher recommendations, as well as scientific evidence that cramming is not the best way to study, a large number of students continue to pack all of their studying in the hours before a test. UCLA researchers have shown that even though distributed (spread out over time) studying resulted in higher test scores 90% of the time, 74% of test takers still felt that cramming was more beneficial.

Best Practices for Studying

Most tutors will tell you that starting early is the key to passing a class with flying colors. After all, our memories are set up to record information slowly. If you know a subject is going to be difficult for your child, help them start studying right away! If you think that they will have difficulty in staying on track, encourage them to employ classmates as accountability partners. The more people who are involved with the studying, the easier it is to stay motivated. Even as short a time as  two weeks before a major test, a few extra hours of studying spread out throughout the week will really help commit the material to memory. By the time the test comes up, it will be much easier for students to remember the information, because it will be something they’ve been thinking and reading about for weeks, not hours. For subjects that require lots of memorization, such as foreign languages and history, research shows that spaced out studying of flash cards is best. For more dense subjects, like mathematics and sciences, reviewing of concepts and old homework problems is probably best.

As a parent, the best thing that you can do is to act as a champion for your child. Parents can act as a negative reminder, constantly reminding students to study, but offering no assistance. If you know something about the subject, help the student out. If you never took the class yourself, you can still help your student study by helping them stay focused. Ask your child what they know about the subject so far, and what they need to work on to be ready for the test. Do they understand the concepts? How comfortable are they in doing the math to solve the problem? Could they explain the basic principles of the subject to someone else? Often, being able to teach someone else the subject is a clear indicator of mastery. If the student needs help understanding the subject material, and you don’t understand it either, then maybe it’s time to bring in someone who does, such as a trained academic tutor.



When Cramming Absolutely Must Be Done

Maybe this article hasn’t come into your life early enough. Maybe there’s a major test in the next few days. Fortunately, psychology has given us some helpful knowledge of how memory works, and we can use this to make the best out of a short time.

In psychology, there is something called the ‘Seven, Plus or Minus Two’ rule, or ‘Miller’s Law.’ The rule refers to years of work conducted by Psychologist George A. Miller, who conducted research on memory in the 1950’s. Miller tested participants’ ability to remember strings of numbers, nonsense words, and passages of English writings. He looked at memory abilities over various time spans, from a few seconds to several days and weeks. He found that the human mind can remember about seven bits of information in the short term. Have you noticed that phone numbers are easier to remember if you already know the area code? That’s because a phone number without the area code is 7 numbers, but with the area code it has 10 numbers.

If someone gives you step-by-step directions to their apartment, you can probably remember the first few turns without writing it down. “Take a left at Holcombe” is two bits of information, so you could probably remember four turns. However, if they include physical landmarks and exit numbers, then you might only be able to remember a few instructions, as they are giving you many more bits of information.

We can apply that knowledge to memorizing test material. Of course, any test is likely to have more than 7 concepts, and the concepts are likely too complex to work with Miller’s Law, but you can build off of Miller’s Law with associations. Mental associations are mental connections between concepts, images, and any other stimuli. These associations turn memorization from a one-way road to a spider-web of little bits of information. The more associations you put into a memory, the easier it is to recall later on. Some experiences are easy to remember, because we can remember multiple different stimuli and concepts.

For instance, consider your favorite vacation or trip so far. Can you remember what you were thinking about, who you were talking to, what you saw, what you ate, and even what you smelled? That’s at least five bits of information, and they all have connections going in between them. That’s a strong memory.

Miller’s Law can be set up as a mnemonic device that will help you remember seven or so words, and you can then associate more information to those words. For instance, PEMDAS is used in algebra to remember the order of operations in a complex formula. It stands for: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. That fits into Miller’s Law, but math students know a lot more about algebra rules that they associate to the order of operations. See if you and your child can make similar mnemonic devices for their test material!



Cramming is ubiquitous in academic environments, and it can have a negative effect on students’ grades. It’s important to start reviewing material early to really commit it to memory. Make sure that the type of studying matches the type of material (flash cards work for history class, not so well for algebra). If you think it will be difficult for your child to stay on top of studying, try getting classmates involved! If the subject material is difficult to grasp, then you should consider seeking the aid of a trained tutor. Remember to consider how memory works – your child can use it to their advantage when studying!

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