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Michael Bodekaer

Learning scientist and head geek. Formally Labster CTO.
2 min read

To cram, or not to cram? That is the question most students ask themselves when headed towards final exams.

In case you’re one of them, we have the answer for you: Don’t do it.

Why? Because all research indicates that it’s a terrible idea, and that you may in fact end up knowing less than you started out with. Despite this unsettling piece of information, cramming for exams has become a common method for studying. In fact, one survey showed that 99 percent of college students cram for their exams.

Here’s what those 99 percent probably didn’t know, and what you can now use to get the most out of your exam preparation:

Sleep is essential

The main problem with cramming is not so much what you do while cramming. It’s what you don’t do: Sleep.

In a study by UCLA researchers, it was found that sacrificing sleep to cram for an exam is actually counterproductive.

The research showed that longer study hours were associated with academic problems, because the extra studying usually meant less sleep for the student.

In other words, pulling all-nighters is never a good idea. It may seem like a badge of honor, but an all-nighter does nothing to improve your learning or test scores the following day.

Even more unsettling, the research also showed that your entire academic performance that week could be compromised.

So what should you do instead? Get the sleep you need and space out the learning throughout the semester.

(Psst. If you’re reading this last minute anyway, and you’re desperate to memorize material for an upcoming exam, our guide to memorization tricks may be a helpful.)

Space it out, don’t cram it in

If you’re going for the space it out strategy, chances are you’ll be a much more effective (and well-rested) learner.

Although most students believe that cramming is effective, spacing it out has been proven to be a far better strategy. In fact, one study showed that spacing out studying was more effective than cramming for 90 percent of the participating students. Yet 72 percent thought that cramming had been more beneficial to their academic performance.

The best way to learn is to take breaks between study sessions to let your brain fully digest what you’re learning, and then to return to the subject repeatedly.

When you’re able to review material more than once, you’ll be able to comprehend and recall more of it. Simple as that.

At the same time, you don’t want to make the study breaks too long. If you want to use a precise formula to be able to find the most optimal amount of time to put aside for a study break, take about 10 percent of the time you have between the final exam and the second study session. So if you have a lesson on Monday, and a test on the next Monday, study for it on Wednesday. Tuesday is too soon and Sunday is too late.

If you’re left with no other option than to cram before a test, do your best to study as well as you can – but without sacrificing sleep. A lack of sleep is, and always will be, the ultimate doom for exam performance. Instead, focus on studying more effectively. You can use our complete guide to improving your memory for that.

And the best (and perhaps most obvious) advice you can get: Remember that regular periods of studying will save you all the stress and sleepless nights cramming, and will actually give you a better performance come test day. So try to plan your semester by incorporating the best study habits and routines for achieving good grades.

This will lay the foundation for actually remembering what you have learned when you need it for what’s really important: the job you get after you graduate.

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