Monday, October 12, 2015

Exam Cramming Common, But Ineffective

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Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt 
When it comes to undergraduates' plans for preparing for exams,
the strategy is often to ignore the "problem" of studying until the test is imminent. Students then study as much as possible in the span of one or two days to "learn" the material in time for the exam. The problem with this practice, called cramming, is that it does not work very well. This is especially true for students who are inconsistent with class attendance, as they really are left to learn all the covered material in the day or two prior to assessment.

Compared to the strategy of incremental learning, where students study recently covered material in a smaller amount every night or several times a week, cramming simply does not produce preferable short-term nor long-term results. The larger differences between incremental learning and cramming are found in performance is in long-term retention. When students cram, they are not adequately elaborating on the material they want to learn. Rather, they are only doing what is necessary to keep the material fresh in their minds for a short time. Once they have finished their exam, that information is no longer elaborated on with any additional repetition and, thus, disappears from memory fairly quickly. Incremental learning is done with more manageable amounts of information  across many repetitions, and on a much larger time scale, allowing for elaboration and consolidation that makes information much more likely to be assimilated into long-term memory.

Students will always be drawn to cramming, as it often get results that are "good enough." Students may benefit from instructors encouraging students to abandon cramming so that the students remember material from their course after final exams are turned in.

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