How your brain tricks you into thinking cramming works

Most people have tried 'cramming' - revising everything for an exam at the last minute. But does it do more harm than good?

The downsides of cramming
On the surface, cramming makes sense as a way to use all the time you have to prepare for the exam. But it does have downsides:
  • You won't retain the information beyond the exam, so even if it works, it's much less helpful than revising properly
  • You'll stress yourself out, making it harder to do your best and possibly even making you remember less
  • It's easy to make mistakes if you're rushing to memorise information
Why cramming feels effective - even though it doesn't work
For most people, cramming is much less effective than slower, scheduled learning. However, it can feel much more effective than it is. That's because after revising everything quickly, when you look over your notes again you recognise everything, making you feel like you've got it all in your head. Unfortunately, being able to recognise something doesn't mean you'll be able to recall it later: all that this feeling of familiarity does is to trick you into thinking that cramming works.
Why do people cram?
There are two main causes of cramming.
  1. You haven't prepared well enough for the exam.
  2. You're worried or anxious about the exam even though you have prepared.
Cramming isn't the best way to deal with either of these situations. Putting together a sensible, achievable revision schedule in advance can help you to avoid being underprepared when the exam approaches. Of course, if it's the day before the exam and you haven't prepared properly, then you can't go back and fix the mistake, but trying to cover everything at the last minute still isn't the most effective approach. Instead, identify the most important things you need to cover and focus your revision on those. Make sure you still give yourself enough time to eat sensibly and get some sleep. After the exam, it might be useful to write down how being underprepared made you feel and how you can avoid it happening again.

If you have prepared but you're still anxious, cramming will probably make it worse. However, it can be difficult to know when you're worrying unnecessarily, so try to talk to someone about how you are feeling: an outside view might help you to get some perspective on how prepared you are. Read more advice on dealing with exam stress.
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