Cramming May Not Be Best Practice

Isabela Guimaraes, 17, has learned from experience that cramming is far from the best way to prepare for a test. The junior at Georgetown Day School, who has final exams coming up, has started to space out her studying, making sure to leave time to revisit material. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
Monday, June 4, 2007

Take it from Isabela Guimaraes, a top D.C. high school student who said she has been there and done that: Cramming for an exam is better than not studying at all, but it's hardly a best practice.

Once, faced with a test in a troublesome trigonometry class, the Georgetown Day School student tried to fill her head with formulas for hours beforehand, only to find that her brain went blank at the critical moment. On her test, she wrote to her teacher:

"Dear Vinnie. Really studied. So sorry. Maybe you will let me do corrections. Please. Thank you, Isabela."

For her trig final, she took no chances. She spaced out her studying, making sure that she had time to repeatedly revisit material. She did fine on the final.

What the 17-year-old discovered is what Hermann Ebbinghaus, the first psychologist to experiment on the properties of human memory, revealed to the world in a paper published in 1885: Humans can remember more by learning material over time, in chunks, rather than in one block the night before a test.

It is what experts call the spacing effect or the distributed practice effect, said Gary Gillund, associate professor of psychology and chairman of the psychology department at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Exactly why this is so is unclear, but experts have come up with several theories. The simplest, Gillund said, is inattention; spreading out study time usually means more attention to each study attempt. Another posits that the act of retrieving stored information, as would occur in spaced study but not cramming, strengthens existing memory. A third is called "encoding variability."

"When we study information, we store not only the information of interest, we also store related semantic and contextual information," Gillund said. "That is, we store what we were thinking about and something about the situation we are in. Massed practice results in only one context. Spaced or distributed practice results in several contexts. The more contexts we have, the more cues we have available to retrieve the information at the time of the test."

Despite the evidence, students still cram the night before an exam, often with lots of coffee, M&Ms and other treats that either provide comfort or a sugar rush at 2 a.m.

"A bite of cookie dough reminds you that everything is not horrible," said one 13-year-old girl.

And researchers admit that cramming for specific exams can help somewhat -- depending on the amount of time spent studying, the subject and the difficulty of the test. Cramming on multiplication tables could be effective. Trying to decipher the meaning of "Catcher in the Rye" between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. for an 8 a.m. exam, not so much.

But anyone interested in retaining information shouldn't expect much from cramming.

"If we really are serious about students retaining information for a fair amount of time, then we ought to be setting up situations to help them space exposure to the material," said Mark McDaniel, an expert on human memory and learning and a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

That, he said, could include a regimen of quizzes during the year that incorporates material from earlier units. Students might not appreciate that during the year, but at final exam time, it could be a different story.

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