The Pitfalls of last-minute studying

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Updated  Maria Horner


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Raise your hand if you've ever tried to cram information into your head the night before an exam. Leave your hand up if it didn't work out particularly well — be it in terms of exam results, how much you still remember, or how sleep-deprived you were the day of the exam.

The Pitfalls of last-minute studying

Everybody does it

Research by the Chartered Institute of Education Assessors (CIEA) has found that at 48% of students under 24 employ short-term studying to get through their exams. When 1,500 students of the University of Indiana were polled about their studying habits, an overwhelming 99% said that they crammed for exams and assignments. 48% admitted that they were planning on cramming for next term's exams as well. Even though research has shown that for at least 90% of students spaced out learning would be more beneficial, 72% believe that cramming is the more efficient way for them to study.

Teachers, parents, students themselves, experts, and just about every studying guide advise to create a carefully planned out, long term study plan. This plan should facilitate for efficient exam preparation, retention of knowledge, and give enough leeway to take days off or seek help if problems in understanding the material occur. Study for a bit every day, review your notes, create mind maps, and ace your exams — it sounds so easy, so why don't students do it?

Why students study last minute

Participants of the survey conducted at the University of Indiana overwhelmingly gave one reason for cramming: lack of time for studying. Balancing classes, extracurricular activities, possibly a job, and personal and family life fill up the schedule of a typical student too much and too irregularly to allot a fixed time for studying every day. Procrastination and the perception that they perform better under pressure and cramming “just works better for them”, was also among the top reasons for last-minute study habits.

Repetition is key

Students who are convinced that cramming is a good method for them are very likely studying only to familiarise themselves with the material and not to retain the information in the long term. After a long, caffeine-fuelled, last-minute study session you will probably be familiar enough with facts and concepts to recognise and recall them in an exam.

However, by cramming information into your head you aren't giving your brain enough time to translate the words and images in your short term memory into meaning in your long term memory. Long term information retention is only triggered after repeated exposure. This is also why you won't remember much from an exam you crammed for: you study for it once and never review the subject matter again. Therefore the information won't be committed to long term memory.

The Pitfalls of last-minute studying

To facilitate deep processing of information you could try out techniques like drawing mind and concept maps and re-writing and condensing notes — find out what works best for yourself. In any case, short but regular study sessions over a longer period of time are more beneficial than trying to get through an entire term of lectures in one night.

Learning for the long term

If you space out your exam preparation at least a little longer than just cramming a night before the exam, your brain will reorganise information and give it structure when committing it to long term memory. This process will help you understand, internalise, and connect important concepts. At this point, studying becomes not only about passing an exam, but consolidate knowledge and skills for life.

Helping students build a habit of continuous spaced out studying early on will benefit them in the later years of their education when this type of exam preparation becomes inevitable for students to manage their workload. However, long term learning is not only about ensuring good grades. Internalising concepts, information, and skills and being able to recall and apply them reliably is also an essential aspect of professional life.

Exams vs. coursework

Whether or not students tend to struggle with a habit of cramming can be rooted in the education system they are a part of. A system that bases a student's grade solely on a final exam only records a single snapshot of a their performance. Additionally, a majority of students will be cramming a term's worth of information into their heads in a matter of days — only to forget most of it as soon as they walk out of the exam hall.

In contrast, if a student's grade is based on coursework throughout and an exam at the end of the term, they will at least be discouraged from starting their exam preparation at the last minute. This system forces students to repeatedly engage with the subject matter over a longer period of time which makes preparation for the final exam easier. The way students are assessed in a coursework based system is designed to facilitate long term learning and prevent cramming. In addition, a grade that is determined by several assignments ensures that the students' results are a more accurate summary of their academic performance. It also allows students to iron out a bad grade and improve over time.

Don't study all night

Another disadvantage of studying in the nick of time for an exam is a lot more obvious and immediate. Cramming is pretty much synonymous with lack of sleep. But unfortunately, deep sleep is vital in the consolidation of memory in the long term. However, against all better judgement and all good intentions, you might end up in need for some last-minute preparation. If that's the case, make sure to get at least a few hours of sleep and don't pull an all-nighter. There's a guarantee that you will perform better on an exam if your concentration is not impeded by severe lack of sleep.

If necessary, cramming can get you through an exam, but will be useless in the long run. Only efficient, spaced out study sessions facilitate long term retention of knowledge and skills. Starting your exam prep early will prevent stress and ease exam anxiety. And finally, it will also give you leeway to figure out unexpected problems you may encounter and get help from peers or a tutor.

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