I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

What's The Brain Deal With Cramming?

What's The Brain Deal With Cramming?

Cramming. The answer to studying for many students.

I get it. We all have a life and school often ain’t it until we have no choice.

No one plans to cram. It’s not like you say to yourself: I will study for my chemistry test from midnight to 4 am the night before and sleep for 3 hours that night. That’s cray-cray! Who in their right mind would plan to study for 4 hours straight and sleep for 3 hours? Yet, many students wait until the night before to hit the books or review for that big history, science, or English test. They promise themselves to not procrastinate but end up waiting till the very last moment to write that essay or create that presentation. Is this you?

But Is Cramming Effective?

One time, a female student came to see me after school. She bombed her chem test and was bummed out about it.

I studied for four hours last night and I thought I knew it! I even stayed up late to go over everything twice! I don’t understand how I did so bad! Is there any extra credit I can do?

True story except it’s kind of a lie. This wasn’t just one student. I hear this all the time from many students. The truth might be that many just don’t know why cramming is ineffective. I mean you might go to sleep feeling you’ve got it. And then the test comes and you don’t… Why is that?

Well… What happened was…

The information never made it from short-term to long-term memory.

In other words: You never actually learned it. Your brain threw it out. The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that holds short-term memories and decides whether to keep them or not, decided much of the information wasn’t important enough to keep and so it hit the DELETE button. You might have even understood it, but you still forgot it. And you can’t use that which you don’t remember. Bummer, I know.

Cramming sucks, because you spend a lot of time doing it while results you get are mediocre at best. Even if you do well on the test you crammed for you forget the information shortly after you take the test. That’s not too terrible if you don’t need it anymore. But what if the same stuff reappears on the final, or you need to use it on a project, or in your future job?

The real tragedy happens when you realize that though you did okay on the test you crammed for you did not learn anything. Not really. If you forgot it all a day or two later, you’re not any smarter and you just wasted a bunch of time going to school and cramming. Your brain might have held the information until the morning of the test, but then closed the loop on it and threw it out after you completed the test.  

But most likely, the lack of sleep and not enough time for the information to be processed affected your performance negatively. You probably did not do as well as you could have had you used smart spaced practice. Hopefully, you weren’t one of those school zombies who chronically don’t get enough sleep and look like they have more than a few dead brain cells up there.

So What’s The Real Deal With Cramming?

Why does it seem like cramming can sometimes work?

As I mentioned above, your brain, specifically the hippocampus is capable of holding a bunch of information for immediate use. What does immediate mean in this context? It’s hard to say, but the time span is short. It may be 2 hours or 2 days, but probably not 2 weeks. And, unless you are revisiting the information periodically, your memories of it fade away more and more with each passing hour.

Some people are better at holding information than others. One reason for this may be genetic, another is most likely a measure of how well-trained your brain is at cramming. What this means is that you might temporarily remember more facts than someone else and hold them in your working memory longer.

So… You might do well on a test, but the information often doesn’t make it to long-term memory. It is temporarily stored a bit longer. You might remember more facts for a test you crammed for than the next person, but will still forget most of the information in the long term. In a nutshell, you did well on the test but still didn’t learn the concepts because your hippocampus threw them out after you used them for the test.

The way you study communicates to your unconscious brain if the information will be needed in the future. This is why the depth of your learning depends on your approach to learning. Consequently, deeper learning cannot occur when you cram.

This might be okay for subjects and concepts you’ll never use in the future. If you just want to get through…  say physics, and you don’t care about getting an A or a B, cramming tactics might help with that… But why would anyone cram for something they really want to learn? Personally, I don’t think anyone wishes to do that with topics they’re passionate about, but most students fail to plan their study sessions out. This is why you end up cramming. You don’t plan not to cram.

Why LeBron Doesn’t Cram

If you want to be successful in your future profession, you will have to become smarter than most people in your field, which means that you need to approach studying it for the long term. The use it and then lose it way that cramming is, does not allow you to be in the top 10% of your field of work. Would we be calling LeBron James “The King” or “King James” now had he just took a thousand shots on the night before the game and skipped practice all the other days? Much like LeBron has to practice repeatedly to maintain his high level of play you need to use strategies that help you retain information.

How do you do that? LeBron has coaches who help him with workout regimens and conditioning. These coaches also schedule team practices. Most of these things are routines; non-negotiables he might not like as much as playing basketball but has to do to stay successful. So what are your non-negotiables? What are the subjects you must not neglect and cram for? Decide and create a plan of practice that will get you to the top.

The Future Does Not Favor Those Who Cram

But here’s the deal. You never know when a subject you decided to ignore and only study for last minute might become useful. Maybe 10 years from now, you’re a businessman who scored a big account, an engineering firm that builds roads, bridges, and skyscrapers, and it quickly becomes apparent to you that you need basic physics knowledge to be able to understand your new client’s needs and what the people you are meeting with are talking about.

You want to hit a home run with this one, and maybe you can even do a half-decent job, but your boss quickly finds out that Jennifer who just got hired can do a lot better job, because she took high school science seriously and just proposed an excellent idea for how to solve the new client’s problem. This is something you couldn’t do in the moment and had no time to learn in the present. Jennifer is the new account manager and you hope to be ready the next time an opportunity like this one comes along…

Luckily, that didn’t happen yet. Your future is all ahead of you. Jennifer is a 9th grader killing it in biology and thinking she might become a lawyer like her aunt Penelope or an entrepreneur like her dad. You are in physics because your college of choice requires it for admission and you’re getting by. You have a respectable B average, but forgot most of what you were supposed to learn last month because you already took that test. You can say: Who cares? It’s not like some freshman will outperform me in the future. Or, you can think long-term and always seek to get something out of every class you take.

The truth is that in the present you just don’t know how or when understanding ideas outside of your expertise may help your future success. You might not always have a choice which classes to take, but you can always decide if you spend your time blowing them off or crushing them. Make the choice that will feel good 5, 10, and 50 years from now.

You have the power to change the world. Use it often.

What did you think about this excerpt from my upcoming learning book, workbook, and guide in one The Crush School Notebook: 12 Weeks To Better Learning available on Amazon on December 1st? It is part of a lesson on cramming to help students understand why it's ineffective. So I don't recommend it, but I think I've figured out a way to hack it to make it well... more effective... Yep, that's what the next post will be about: Hacking Cramming.

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