Cramming: I don't have time to study

Most “professional” students will at some point find themselves in situations where the amount of material they need to learn far exceeds the amount of time they need to prove mastery. In this mini series, we will explore a couple of the factors at play, and how to tip the scales in favor of durable knowledge and the most efficient (and fun!) ways to achieve it.

In Part 1: The “Perks”, we discussed some of the reasons we’re drawn to cramming. One reason cramming feels good is that it requires very little planning. Most of the time, we’re faced with several different courses, all competing for our precious study time and with their own exam schedules. With the rapid march of each upcoming exam, it’s easier to just focus on what’s next. But you might have more time than you think.


Part 2: The Pancake Problem

When we started medical school, our white coat ceremony speaker compared learning in medical school to eating pancakes every day. Each day, without fail, you are expected to consume six pancakes. This task on its own is not difficult, and it’s actually kinda fun. The catch: any pancake you don’t consume gets added to the next day’s load.

One day, you decide not to finish the stack. You decide to eat a chocolate chip cookie instead, and the next day, you find that you have seven pancakes in your stack instead of simply six. No problem, you think. You can handle seven pancakes.

Next thing you know, two weddings, a sick dog, move-out weekend for your parents, several extra long phone calls with your sister, the summer Olympics, and that stack of pancakes is now 36 high, and there’s just no way you’re going to finish that in time for your board exam unless you cram. 

I like this metaphor a lot better than the well-known “med school is like drinking from a fire hose,” because you can’t afford to just let the hose water blast past your face! You are accountable for every last drop of water, just like you are for the pancakes on your plate or the inhibitors of P450 enzymes.

There’s a lot you can do to make every minute count (see Pomodoro method), but I think it’s just as important to recognize that you probably have more time than you think. I read once that Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, had all team members record their days’ activities in thirty minute increments, with 12 hours minimum to be recorded every day. Records were kept in those classic black and white composition books, with the hours on one half of the paper and records of activities on the right. 

While it seems a little excessive, I actually think it’s really encouraging. Alex and I have done this on a spreadsheet for a week and actually tallied up the total hours we spent doing everything. When we extrapolated each category over the course of a month and then a year, we were inspired by how much time we could actually devote to what we cared about, even if on a day to day or week by week basis it was only a small amount of time. Doing something consistently—writing papers, building relationships, eating pancakes—is so much more palatable than a sky-high stack.

*Make scheduling your spaced (not crammed!) study a little easier with Anki

Next week: Research shows that cramming can lead learners to feel more satisfied. What’s the catch?