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Cramming Homework Assignments

In our five-part series, Making Sense of Exams, we’ll discuss the purpose of exams, whether they can be done online, overcoming exam anxiety, and effective revision techniques.

The date for an important exam is looming. You know you have to study for it. Suddenly, it’s the evening before the dreaded date, and you feel like you haven’t studied enough, if at all. It’s time to cram all the information you can into your brain.

We know that to do well in exams, you have to remember your material to then demonstrate your knowledge during the test. But is an intense night of study an effective way of learning?

Learning information that can then be recalled in an often stressful environment is taxing on the brain.

In the best situations we can forget things like our colleague’s names when trying to introduce them to someone.

In a high pressure situation our brains can easily perform sub-optimally.

How to remember information in the long term

In cognitive psychology, a discrimination can be drawn between deep and shallow processing of information. This is known as the Levels of Processing theory which was proposed by researchers in the 1970’s. They argued that “deep processing” led to better long-term memory than “shallow processing”.

Shallow processed information can be encoded by the brain based on the simple characteristics of the words, rather than the meaning. So the knowledge is only able to be stored in short-term memory stores, where it is only retained for a short period.

To process information deeply, the meaning and importance of the information is encoded. Relations between concepts are linked together in an elaborate manner, so more understanding of the information is able to be demonstrated.

Due to the more meaningful analysis of the material, stronger and more long lasting memories can be formed.

Taking the time to elaborate and assign meaning to information allows easier recall. However, this process takes time, and when an entire subject needs to be crammed into your memory in a short period of time, deep processing can’t be performed.

So cramming can work for a short-term recall of the information, but this information will rapidly be lost.

Re-reading notes is not enough

Re-reading through notes is often not enough to cement information into your memory.

A way of encoding information more deeply is to write diagrammatic notes. Spider diagrams, mind maps and concept maps are visual stimuli and are more easily remembered than a list of points or blocks of text.

Condensing information down into single word cues can then efficiently trigger the recall of large amounts of information.

Hand writing revision notes can also help you learn information more deeply and helps you to get into the practice of writing rapidly in an exam setting.

Typing on a computer can also increase distraction, as the temptation to procrastinate can increase.

A lack of sleep can affect your performance

Last minute revision is synonymous with a poor night’s sleep, if any sleep at all.

The dilemma presented is that you can either stay up and study to commit as much information to memory as possible, or forfeit a night’s sleep.

Sleep, however, is essential in forming enduring memories – and a lack of sleep is shown to be self defeating in terms of memory recall.

Scientists still do not fully understand why sleep is so important for brain function, but it is known that sleep is important in the consolidation of memory.

This is the process of forming an enduring memory from short-term stores into long-term memory.

Your brain goes through different stages of sleep. The deepest stage of sleep is known as Slow Wave Sleep and this period is proposed to be vital in the consolidation of memories.

The hippocampus is essential in the consolidation of memories, in particular in forming episodic memories, which requires linking the features of a memory together.

Studies have revealed in mice that the neurons in the hippocampus activated during learning a maze became active again during Slow Wave Sleep. The reactivation of neurons is proposed to strengthen the new connections.

So a good night’s sleep after learning new information is essential to forming memories. It’s beneficial to get sleep rather than staying awake and going into an exam without rest.

Procrastination can pile on the pressure

Despite the deadline of exams to study for, mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing, like rearranging a bookshelf, or cleaning your desk, instead of revising for an exam.

The tasks we can occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are typically immediately rewarding but only have a short-term value.

The more important task of studying can lead to a bigger reward - passing the exam, however this reward is not immediate.

Humans tend to be motivated for small, immediate rewards. The value of passing a test certainly outweighs smaller, immediate rewards like playing video games; when the deadline approaches, the importance shifts. This usually leads to a long night of study before the exam.

It has been suggested procrastinators may be a certain personality type, in particular people who are thrill seekers.

Leaving an important task until the last minute increases adrenalin and stress hormones, and you can get a rewarding “rush” once its complete. The reinforces the idea that such people work better under pressure.

Familiar environment can prompt memory

Even if you arrive at the exam the morning after a long night of study, feeling sleep deprived and as if you haven’t learnt enough, all may not be lost.

Being in the exam hall at school, college or university can help you recall information. The familiar environment can increase performance as the stimuli around you can prompt memory.

For example, a science exam being taken in a science classroom can cue memories, these cues aren’t present in a strange environment such as taking an exam in a race course hall.

This is known as the environmental reinstatement effect, which occurs because the location you are in can act as a prompt for past memories.

Environmental cues can trigger memory recall, so something as simple as having your pencil case on your desk while studying and again during the exam could assist in prompting memories.

Tips for remembering information

  1. Hand write out your notes instead of typing
  2. Get a good night’s sleep before an exam
  3. Write a revision plan and start early

• Read more from the series.

Every September, I hear the same mantra repeated amongst my friends: this year is going to be different. They’re going to be on top of their readings and their homework; they’ll come to class on time and review their notes every evening; they’re going to start studying early and not stress out over exams. And always, by the end of the semester, all this has gone out the window. Soon, they come to the realization that they have one night to cram an entire semester’s worth of information into their heads lest they fail the final exam.

When I use terms like “my friends” and “they,” what I mean to say is “myself” and “I.” I am a master procrastinator. Heck, this article is due tonight and I’m just beginning it now (sorry, editors!). Procrastination is a problem, and there are ways to overcome it and get more organized. That being said, I know more than anybody that when you’re 12 hours away from a final exam you haven’t studied for, your first thought isn’t “Gee, I should look at my life choices and study habits and perhaps make some major structural changes!” but rather “OH SHIT GONNA FAIL NEED TO STUDY SO STRESSED I WANT MY MOOOOM.”

This here, this is not a study guide. Ideally, studying begins well in advance of finals, at the library or in a group or however Rory on Gilmore Girls does it. This is a guide on staying up late and cramming. It’s a bad habit, and I don’t recommend it, but every once in a while you gotta do what you gotta do. So take a deep breath, stop panicking, and read these tips from somebody who’s been there. I’m not here to judge, I’m here to help.

Part 1: Getting Ready

Prepare your space–but don’t overdo it.

You need to have a clean surface where you can focus and study. Clear aside all the confetti and lunchboxes you’ve been using as decor from your desk–and then shove all that stuff under your bed. This is not the time to be voyaging down memory lane as you sort through and organize your clutter; you can do that once your exams are over. Don’t just put everything on your bed either. At a certain point you’re just going to want to flop down exhausted, and you don’t want to have to deal with clearing off your bed at 2 AM.

Make sure you don’t get too comfortable. Studying on your bed in your sweatpants might seem ideal, but you’re just asking to fall asleep while reading about the Civil War. Sitting upright at your desk wearing your day clothes will help you stay awake.

Make sure you have all the tools you’ll need so you won’t have to get up later: good lighting, textbooks, notes, water, snacks, pens, etc. At this point, it’s no use being picky. You can only find yellow highlighters when you prefer to color-code everything? Make a note for next time, and use what you’ve got for now. Don’t worry, you can deal.

Get rid of distractions.

When I was in middle school, I used to hang tissues over the pictures of my kittens on my desk so I wouldn’t get distracted by looking at them (I know what you’re thinking, and yes: I did get invited to so many parties). Turn off your cell phone, or better yet, give it to a sibling or parent to hold hostage. When I lived in a dorm we didn’t have wifi, so when I had to write an essay I would take my ethernet cable and give it to a friend to hang on to. Avoid computers entirely if possible; if you need to Wikipedia something, start a list on a piece of paper to look up once you’ve done everything you can offline.

Some people can study better in complete silence, others need music or background noise. Stick to something instrumental; classical music has been said to help with memory, though I’ve always preferred horror-movie soundtracks (as a bonus, they keep me too wigged out to fall asleep and will make the stuff you’re reading seem super exciting). We all know Beyoncé is great, but can you listen to “Countdown” without singing along? No. Nobody can. Save it for your study break.

Make a study schedule.

When you’re this short on time. you’re going to feel like you can’t waste a SECOND on ANYTHING before you jump into the studying. But I am going to propose that you take five minutes before you open a book to make a schedule. It helps, I promise. You don’t have to get fancy; just grab a pen and piece of scrap paper and make a rough guide.

First, divide your notes into chunks by chapters, units, or whatever makes sense to you. This will make your workload seem less intimidating. Try to break the work into 25-minute segments–any longer and you will just lose focus. Then, on your scrap paper, jot down every chunk you need to attack and the time you expect to do it, so that you don’t end up studying for six hours only to realize you’re only halfway through your notes. Give yourself a few minutes between each study chunk in case it takes longer than expected, so you don’t feel overwhelmed if you’re behind schedule. Your final list might look something like this:

8:00-8:25 Read through notes for chapter one.
8:30-8:50 Do practice problems in textbook.
9:00-9:15 pm Review errors; make note of sections to reread later.

And so on. Now we get to the fun part…

Part 2: The Studying

Don’t just read; engage with your notes.

How many times have you read a couple of pages of a book only to realize you have NO IDEA what you just read? Just staring at your notes is usually not enough. Don’t be a passive studier; make sure you are actually learning something.

If you’re studying math or science, complete some practice problems in the textbook to make sure you get how they work. For other subjects, try repeating definitions or key facts out loud while not looking at your notes. Sing them, if you are alone. Sing them while jumping on your bed. Do whatever it takes to get the facts into your brain!

Rewrite key concepts or ideas in your own words, as if you’re trying to explain them to a friend. If you have a friend studying for the same test, explain the material to each other. If it’s an English or essay exam, jot down everything you can think of about the book’s theme. You might think you know something off the top of your head, but when you actually have to write about it without any reference points, you get totally stuck. Taking a few minutes to test yourself is way more useful than reading the same page over and over again.

Focus on your rough spots.

Go through all your notes at least once, if you can. As you read, take your pen and put the following marks in your notebook (use Post-it notes if you’re studying with a book that isn’t yours): one checkmark next to the things you know you know, two checkmarks next to stuff you have to review, and three checkmarks next to anything you don’t know even a little bit.

It’s easy to lose an hour on a concept that you just can’t figure out; know when to move on. Spending too long on one thing that you just can’t understand will only stress you out more, and you are wasting time that you could spend learning other things. Give yourself 20 minutes to try and figure something out; if you’re still having trouble, put it aside and come back to it when you’re done with the rest of your studying, or make a note and see if you can get a classmate (or your teacher) to explain it to you before the exam.

Take breaks, but make them short.

Take five minutes after every scheduled study block to get up, move around, stretch, go to the bathroom, etc. Doing this will keep you from getting restless. In times of extreme boredom and ennui, do a dozen jumping jacks or run in place for a minute—you might feel ridiculous, but it will help keep you awake and alert. Don’t start flipping through magazines, check your Facebook, or turn on the TV–even when you promise yourself that it’s only for a minute, it is so easy to get sucked into a black hole of distractions.

Drink more water than coffee. You have your college years to get addicted to caffeine. Too much of the stuff can actually make you anxious, which is the last thing you want to feel when you’re already stressed.

Have some snacks, but try to avoid anything sugary that will just make you crash later.

Part 3: Actually Writing the Exam

Get some sleep…

When you’re dead tired, it won’t make a huge difference if you’ve been studying for four hours as opposed to three and a half–after a certain point, your brain will just stop absorbing information. However, spending that extra half hour sleeping will make a big difference. Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s rest.

Before you begin studying, give yourself a cutoff time. Tell yourself that no matter what, you’ll be in bed by 2 AM (or whatever makes sense to you—this is when it’s important to know your own limits) and stick to it.

…but make sure you wake up.

Put your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Open your curtains before you go to bed so the sunlight will wake you up. Have your parents wake you up. Ask a friend who is a morning person to call you at the crack of dawn. Whatever you do, don’t let yourself sleep in–it’s show time.

Getting out of bed and actually waking up are two different things. Take a quick shower and for the last 30 seconds, blast the water on cold. If you have time, go for a short walk before school. Just to get your blood flowing. To your BRAIN. Read over your notes quickly on the bus. This is where your handy checkmark system will become useful, because you’ll know what to concentrate on: whatever was giving you trouble last night. Your morning brain might have a better handle on that material.


When writing your exam, remain calm–panic can lead to stupid mistakes. Before you start, eat something and go to the bathroom, even if you don’t have to.

A lot of the tricks you used while studying can be applied to writing the exam itself. Have all your pens and tools ready before you begin, and make sure you bring spares for everything. When you get the test, read through all the questions and instructions before you begin, and put marks next to the ones you know or the ones that can get you the most points. Do those first. Not only will this hopefully trigger your brain to answer the other questions, but solving questions you already know the answers to will keep your confidence up. If it’s a math exam, write out all the formulas you’ll need right away while they’re fresh in your mind so you can refer to them later. Ditto for history exams and important dates.

Keep your eye on the clock and make sure you aren’t spending too much time on one section; there is no use spending half an hour agonizing over a five-point question you don’t understand if you can spend that half hour answering 10 questions worth one point each. Reread your answers slowly and carefully, and if you have time, redo all the equations to make sure you get the same answer. It’s easy to let little things slip when you’re tired, so take all the time you’re given to triple-check everything before handing in your exam.

Part 4: Hindsight

Remember how much cramming sucks, and start studying earlier for your next exam.

Yeah, you probably aren’t going to do this. ♦