Students often report that they cram before exams. But a review of the literature indicates that this is ineffective. So, what can be done instead?
Research by the Chartered Institute of Education Assessors found that 32% of British students admitted to cramming to get through exams and that this approach is increasing, with 48% of respondents under the age of 24 employing the method .
Cramming is where a student does the bulk of their revision a couple of days before an exam. Why is this a bad idea?
First, it creates the illusion of knowledge. Most think that the familiarity we gain from reading course material for several hours before an exam is the same as having the ability to recall it. However, Professor Stafford, a psychologist at Sheffield University, explains this is not true . He states that familiarity is affected by the ease with which information passes through parts of the brain like the visual cortex. Recall, though, is supported by areas of the brain like the frontal cortex and temporal lobe . Cramming activates the visual cortex, which means we can process our course material fluently when reading it, but not the frontal cortex and temporal lobe, so we are not able to effectively recall our notes in a way that helps us write good exam answers.
Second, knowledge gained from cramming leaves the mind quickly. A study published in 2008 by Dr McIntyre and Dr Munson, of Santa Clara University, California, looked at an example of two students who scored 85% on the Principles of Marketing course at their institution, one who crammed a lot and one who did not cram a lot. After testing them on the course content 150 weeks after the course itself, they found that the crammer retained only 27% of what they had learned in comparison to the non-crammer who retained 82% [3, p.234]. This is related to the ‘curve of forgetting’, which can be seen graphically here .
Third, cramming can lead to burnout. Leaving revision to the last minute may increase stress levels as there is a lot to take in in so little time. Additionally, in trying to cover the content, a student may spend an entire couple of days studying and losing sleep. So, they may feel physically and emotionally exhausted by the time the exam comes. This could decrease their concentration and limit their exam performance.
If cramming is ineffective, why do students do it?
For some, it may simply be a result of procrastination and disorganisation . Students have a lot of competing priorities, like socialising, working and studying, and those who struggle to balance these effectively sometimes have little choice but to do all their revision at the last minute. But it is not just about time management. A study by Dr Kornell, of the University of California (2009), found that 72% of people believed cramming was a more effective revision approach than spreading learning out over a longer period .
What would be more effective than cramming?
Research suggests that it is not a case simply of increasing the amount of time you study. Rather, you should be doing litte and often, leaving gaps between your revision sessions . For example, you could do 20 minutes of revision every second day for your course over a semester, rather than many hours the day before an exam. This gives your brain time to consolidate the information before focusing on another part of the course. A further benefit is that by revising over a longer time period, you allow yourself more opportunities to test your knowledge and identify gaps you need to work harder on for the exam. This can aid exam performance and knowledge retention.
Cramming is a tempting revision approach either by design or necessity. But by trying to space your learning out more, you can make the most of your university studies. Now might just be the right time to take this alternative approach.
Exam Bootcamp has three steps to successful exams and includes advice and guidance on effective revision techniques as well as steps to making longer term changes.
 Hand, J. (2009) ‘Is it too late to cram for that big exam?’ BBC News. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8059860.stm [Accessed on 24th June, 2020]
 Stafford, T. (2014) ‘Memory: Why cramming for tests often fails.’ BBC Future. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140917-the-worst-way-to-learn#:~:text=With%20a%20plan%2C%20we%20can,%3A%20cramming%20doesn’t%20work.&text=At%20least%20one%20survey%20has,of%20students%20admit%20to%20cramming [Accessed on 24th June, 2020]
 McIntyre, S. and Munson, J. (2008) ‘Exploring Cramming: Student Behaviours, Beliefs, and Learning Retention in the Principles of Marketing Course.’ Journal of Marketing Education 30(3): 226-243. DOI: 10.1177/0273475308321819.
 Wadsowrth, W. (2019) ‘Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve Explained: The Importance of Spaced Learning For Memory.’ Exam Study Expert. Available at: https://examstudyexpert.com/ebbinghaus-forgetting-curve/ [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020]
 Ackerman, D. and Gross, B. (2005) ‘My instructor made me do it: Task characteristics of procrastination.’ Journal of Marketing Education 27(1): 5-13. DOI: 10.1177/0273475304273842.
 Kornell, N. (2009) ‘Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming.’ Applied Cognitive Psychology 23(9): 1297-1317. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1537.
 Coughlan, S. (2014) ‘Long gaps during revision ‘better than cramming’.’ BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25626265 [Accessed on 24th June, 2020]