Cramming: The "Perks"

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. 

how to avoid cramming

Part 1: The “Perks”

First, let’s talk about why we love cramming. 

It requires less 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. (Next week: how we find more time)

It feels good to develop rapid fluency.

Cramming leads to rapid fluency with the material, which misleads us into thinking we know it better than we do (Dunlosky et al. 2013, Bahrick and Hall 2005). Since cramming doesn’t give the material time to appropriately fade from short-term memory, learners actually feel more satisfied (Rawson & Kintsch 2005). In fact, those who space out their learning often report feeling that their learning is inferior to cramming—even when they’re presented with their own objective gains in long-term retention (Kornell and Bjork 2008). Simply put, fluency feels good. 

It gets you higher scores (sometimes).

Lastly, cramming may sometimes be more effective on immediate, non-cumulative tests (Rawson & Kintsch 2005). For our first year of medical school, we had weekly exams on the prior week’s material. This schedule is fairly common across the country. If you’re not cramming the last week’s material with everything you’ve got, then there's a real chance you won’t get the score you want. Ultimately, there are fewer incentives 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. 

Like a bad boyfriend you can’t stop thinking about, cramming is easy, feels good and scores well in some departments. But all in all, he’s got to go, and by recognizing the temptation, hopefully we’ll resist the urge just a little better next time. 

Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. 2013. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest J Am Psychol Soc. 14:4–58.

Bahrick HP, Hall LK. 2005. The Importance of Retrieval Failures to Long-Term Retention: A Metacognitive Explanation of the Spacing Effect. J Mem Lang. 52:566–577.

Kornell N, Bjork RA. 2008. Learning concepts and categories: is spacing the “enemy of induction”? Psychol Sci. 19:585–592.

Rawson KA, Kintsch W. 2005. Rereading Effects Depend on Time of Test. J Educ Psychol. 97:70–80.