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Why Cramming Is Hurting Your Learning (and What to Do Instead)

Whether because of procrastination or a full schedule, you’ve probably stayed up all night trying to cram information into your brain so you can pass an exam the next day.

Despite its prevalence on college campuses, however, cramming isn’t an optimal way to study. Not only is it stressful, but most of the information you cram into your brain will be gone soon after you’re tested on it.

If your only goal is to pass the exam, then that’s not a huge issue. But if your goal is to learn material for the long term, to deeply understand the concepts you’re studying, then cramming is a terrible technique.

Why is cramming so bad, exactly? And what should you do instead? Let’s find out.

When Cramming Does (and Doesn’t) Work

Most study guides (and most professors) will tell you never to cram. And in an ideal world, you wouldn’t. You’d take your time to study the material in the weeks and days leading up to the exam, never waiting until the last minute.

Practically, however, there will be some classes you just don’t care about. These typically fall into the “gen ed” category, though they could also be classes required for your major. For such classes, cramming for the exam at the last minute is acceptable so long as you can still get the grade you want.

For classes that do interest you, however, cramming does you a disservice. Sure, it might be enough to pass the exams, but you’re not going to learn much that will last.

Just think back to the last exam you crammed for — how much of that information do you still remember? Beyond that, how much of the material did you truly understand? If you learned just enough to answer the questions on the test, probably not much.

If cramming is a bad approach, though, what should you do instead? Let’s take a look.

6 Study Techniques to Use Instead of Cramming

If cramming has become your default study method, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of other approaches you can use. Here are six study techniques that are more effective than cramming.

Spaced Repetition

It seems appropriate to begin with the very opposite of cramming: spaced repetition. Instead of condensing your studying into as little time as possible, the goal of spaced repetition is to study material over time, in small doses.

You can use spaced repetition to study just about anything, but I find it works especially well when you need to memorize large amounts of factual information. This works whether the information is something simple such as state capitals, or something more complex such as the anatomy of the brain.

To put spaced repetition into practice, you have a couple of options. Paper flashcards can work, although they aren’t ideal since they treat all study material equally. This means you’ll likely waste time studying things you already know, instead of focusing your attention where you struggle.

The best way we’ve found to implement spaced repetition is with the right flashcard app. These apps let you make flashcards just as you’re used to. The key difference is that they also ask you to rate the difficulty of the card after you’ve seen the answer.

Using this information, the app will show you cards you struggle with more often than cards you find easy. This way, you focus your limited study time on the information you understand the least.

For more information about spaced repetition, including the science behind it, check out our detailed guide.

The Feynman Technique

Spaced repetition and flashcards are great for studying factual information. But what if you need to practice larger concepts in preparation for short answer or essay exams?

In such cases, you can use the Feynman technique. Named for physicist and educator Richard Feynman, it’s a simple but powerful approach to testing your understanding.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Get a sheet of paper and write the name of the concept you’re studying at the top of it.
  2. Explain the concept in your own words as if you were teaching it to someone who knows nothing about it. Try to keep your language as simple as possible, avoiding jargon and technical terms. And give some examples of the concept in action, not just a general overview.
  3. Now, review your explanation and look for problems. Review your textbook, notes, or other source material to correct the gap in your understanding.
  4. Finally, look for areas where you used complex or technical language, and attempt to rewrite those portions in simple language. Again, imagine you’re explaining the concept to someone with no prior knowledge.

The general idea behind the Feynman technique is that if you can’t explain something simply in your own words, you don’t understand it. Using this technique will get you beyond regurgitating explanations from your textbook or lecture notes and towards a deeper understanding.

For more on the Feynman technique, including examples of it in action, read this post.

Pro tip: For further practice, try using the Feynman technique with a live person. Pick someone with no prior knowledge of what you’re studying, and explain the concept to them in your own words. Then, ask for feedback on your explanation. Just be sure to choose someone who will be honest.

Do Your Homework

When it comes to homework, I think most of us feel like Rick from Rick and Morty: “Homework is stupid. The whole point is to get less of it.”

Despite its reputation as a waste of time, however, homework is quite valuable for learning.

First, homework is a chance to practice what you learned in class that day (or, more likely, the day before). Even if you have a very engaging professor, learning material once in a lecture won’t be enough to make it stick. You need to practice whatever you’re learning to remember it over the long term.

Furthermore, homework is a chance to catch gaps in your understanding before they become a problem. If you recognize that you’re struggling to understand something early on, you have plenty of time to correct it before the exam comes around. Which is a lot more effective and less stressful than frantically watching YouTube explanations hours before test time.

Go to Office Hours with Questions

If you’ve done your homework and discovered you don’t understand something, the next step is to get help. Sometimes it’s enough to review your notes, consult your textbook, or find an explanation online.

Other times, however, you’ll need closer guidance. In these cases, you should go to your professor or TA’s office hours. The key, however, is to come with specific questions. This will make it easier for your instructor to help you.

If you just show up and say, “Help, I don’t understand this subject,” you’ll waste everyone’s time.

The purpose of office hours isn’t to reteach material covered in lectures, assigned reading, or problem sets. Rather, it’s to help you clarify things that you still don’t understand after giving your best effort. So make a list of specific questions before you go.

For more on making the most of office hours, check out the Corson technique.

Focus on What You Don’t Understand

When I first seriously began practicing saxophone my sophomore year of high school, my teacher gave me an invaluable piece of advice: “The goal of practicing isn’t to rehearse the things you can already play — the goal is to get better at the things you’re struggling to play.”

While he was talking about practicing music, the same advice applies to learning anything.

If your goal is to get better, then you should focus your study time on your weak areas. This isn’t as fun or comfortable as going through motions you already know well. But it’s the only way you’ll ever improve, and it’s also the most effective use of your limited study time.

Note: If you’re using a spaced repetition flashcard app to study, then the app will automatically force you to spend more time studying the material you struggle with. Running through a concept with the Feynman technique is also a useful way to pinpoint your weak areas.

Get Enough Sleep

Our current understanding of memory suggests that sleep is when memories move from short-term to long-term storage. Therefore, if you’re aiming to optimize your learning, getting enough sleep is critical. Without adequate rest, you’ll have trouble forming the memories you need to deepen your understanding of a subject.

This also shows another way that cramming can do more harm than good. Since cramming typically involves missing or completely skipping sleep, your brain doesn’t have an opportunity to consolidate the information it just learned. And that’s not to mention the fact that sleep deprivation will make it difficult to focus during the exam.

Struggling to get enough sleep? Read this next.

You Can’t Rush Learning

As you can now see, there are plenty of effective alternatives to cramming. Cramming can still work if you just need to regurgitate information you’ll never need again, but it’s a poor study technique if your goal is lasting learning.

For more advice on learning effectively, check out our guide to self-education.

Image Credits: woman sitting in bed with laptop