Primal Numbers – The Cramming Game

If You’re a student, procrastination is probably as much a part of your day as textbooks and quizzes. Your laptop’s ready, your books are open, but there always seems to be something more important to do. Call a friend, grab some lunch, maybe even help your kids with their homework. Besides, you can always squeeze in some last-minute studying. You’ll brew some coffee, pull an all-nighter, and pass with flying colours. Except for one little problem. Science has proven that cramming just doesn’t work.

If cramming is how you usually study, you might think those researchers got it all wrong. After all, the fresher something is in your memory the more likely you are to remember it, right? And if you’ve just spent the last few hours poring over the names of Roman emperors or topics in vector calculus, it will all be floating around up there at the top of your head when you sit down to write your exam.

It sounds good in theory but the reality is that our brains just don’t work that way. As this BBC article explains, there’s a big difference between recognizing something and being able to remember it. Suppose, for example, that you spend a few hours studying a chapter in your textbook. Your visual cortex is processing images and words just fine. You close the book and go to bed, the details fresh in your head.

But then, the next day, you need to remember what you were reading and recall it for an exam. And that means calling on different parts of your brain than you used for studying. The trouble is, they probably won’t be able to find it. That’s because cramming a subject for one or two study sessions doesn’t mean you’ve created a memory of it. All you’ve done is run it past your visual processors, and That’s not enough to make it stick.

In fact, a long, intense study session could work against building long-term memory. As this article over at the Association for Psychological Science explains, researchers used different study methods to test how long and how well students remembered new vocabulary words. The result? Students who did two or more study sessions with a long break between them performed the best. Cramming, on the other hand, “reduces long-term retention.”

Still, even if science has proven that cramming doesn’t work, It’s not always an easy habit to break. There are all the usual distractions, like a new season of Game of Thrones. And going back to school as an adult can mean plenty of unavoidable delays in hitting the books?things like kids getting sick or meetings that run late. Before you know it, that resolution to stick to your study schedule gets sidetracked through no fault of your own.

So what if you’ve got tons of studying to do and not much time to do it in? Well, science might still be able to help.

Several recent studies have found that physically picking up a pen and writing your notes down on paper has a much better impact on memory than typing the same notes on a computer. It might seem counterproductive to take the slow route when you don’t have much time to study, but slowing down is the whole point. It forces you to focus more deeply on what You’re reading. If You’re typing notes into a computer, It’s much easier to let your mind skim over the words as your fingers fly over the keyboard.

And writing notes by hand means You’re more likely to condense the lesson and put it into your own words?a proven help when it comes to committing those notes to your long-term memory.

It’s not the perfect solution to cramming. But it might just keep you from looking like Mr. Bean at exam time.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

Reporting on science and technology, Primal Numbers was (and hopefully will be again) a mainstay of The Voice Magazine. This article, also from April (wow, April was a good month) was chosen by students because of how it is particularly relevant to them.