Cramming: Misaligned Testing Incentives

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. Studies show that cramming may sometimes be more effective on immediate, non-cumulative tests. These kinds of rapid-fire exams are fairly common across the country. If cramming gets us the scores we want on these exams, what incentives do we have to space out our learning?


Part 4: The High Stakes Mistake

This whole series has been dedicated to dismantling the temptations of cramming. Unfortunately, cramming is sometimes the only option before the rapid-fire exams common to many academic institutions. It may be impossible to incorporate any lag before testing. There may only be a day between the introduction of new material and testing of these concepts. If learners are not cramming this new material, then there's a real chance they won’t get the scores they want. Ultimately, it’s hard to feel motivated to dedicate part of this week to material from three weeks ago, when this week’s material is what’s going to give you the score you need on tomorrow’s high-stakes exam. 

Short of changing the education system, there’s not much we can do about the misaligned incentives created by these tests. I can’t blame anyone for playing the high-stakes game. That said, there actually are pretty good incentives to dedicate some time this week to reviewing old material. 

Since spaced learning is often not possible before the exams, it falls on the learner to continue review even after acing the corresponding test. It may seem counterintuitive to review old material for which you’ve already demonstrated mastery, but studies show that spaced study is correlated with higher GPAs (McAndrew et al. 2016), board scores (McHugh 2016) and even USMLE Step 1 (Deng et al. 2015), the standardized exam for medical students that holds increasing career importance. Most importantly, spaced learning builds durable knowledge (Kerfoot 2009) and has been shown to correlate with better patient care (Dolan et al. 2015). 

In the end, dedicating resources to spaced learning is the best investment for the highest stake: patient care. By focusing on long-term gains in durable knowledge, we can keep our incentives properly aligned when faced with ever-approaching rapid-fire exams. 

In case you missed it: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

McAndrew, Maureen, Christina S. Morrow, Lindsey Atiyeh, and Gaëlle C. Pierre. 2016. “Dental Student Study Strategies: Are Self-Testing and Scheduling Related to Academic Performance?” Journal of Dental Education 80(5): 542–52.

McHugh. 2016. “Digital Spaced-Learning Media: A Platform to Reduce Student Anxiety and Promote Proficiency in Medical Pharmacology Education.” FASEB Journal 30(1). 

Deng, Francis, Jeffrey A. Gluckstein, and Douglas P. Larsen. 2015. “Student-Directed Retrieval Practice Is a Predictor of Medical Licensing Examination Performance.” Perspectives on Medical Education 4(6): 308–13.

Kerfoot, B. Price. 2009. “Learning Benefits of On-Line Spaced Education Persist for 2 Years.” The Journal of Urology 181(6): 2671–73.

Dolan, Brigid M., Maria A. Yialamas, and Graham T. McMahon. 2015. “A Randomized Educational Intervention Trial to Determine the Effect of Online Education on the Quality of Resident-Delivered Care.” Journal of Graduate Medical Education 7(3): 376–81.