Burning the midnight oil to cram for exams seems to be a routine trap that many college students fall into during finals week. Characterized by shots of espresso, binders full of hand-scrawled notes, and bloodshot, tired eyes, the last week of the semester finds students attempting to pack as much academic material into their brains as possible.
While many students opt for late-night-cram sessions at the end of the semester, new research, from U.C.L.A., suggests that such a study tactics prove unsuccessful in knowledge retention. In fact, researchers maintain that it is the most ineffective and unproductive form of studying.
“The main problem with cramming is the trade-off between study and sleep,” said Andrew J. Fuligni, an in-residence professor who specializes in developmental psychology at U.C.L.A. “Sufficient sleep is critical for academic success. These results are consistent with emerging research that suggest sleep deprivation impedes learning.”
As college students with busy schedules, we tend to exchange studying for sleeping. However, by doing so, we are being counterproductive. If students sacrifice sleep time in order to study more than usual, they are likely to suffer from more, not less, forgetfulness during the exam the following day.
Another disadvantage of cramming is its ineffectiveness. In order to comprehend material, your brain needs to be exposed to the subject matter multiple times.
This exposure should go something like this: Read > Reiterate > Repeat > Remember.
“Your brain is like a giant muscle that needs to be exercised several times before you can see any progress,” Dr. Jim Sample, an emergency-medicine physician at Westmoreland-Hospital’s Emergency Room, said. “If you try to pack months of information into your head in a single night, you will not retain all the information, no matter how many hours you spend studying. It’s impossible. In order to retain difficult specific details, your brain needs repeated exposure to it, preferably over several days or weeks.”
Additionally, the knowledge acquired while cramming fails to transition from short-term to long-term memory.
In other words, the knowledge is lost.
According to recent studies by Fulgini, the material learned during a cramming session is only retained for about ten minutes. After that time, the brain only recollects basic or general facts.
If cramming causes a greater likelihood of poor test scores, how do we properly study the material that will appear on our final exams?
“When studying for a final, it is most beneficial to study at least a few days in advance,” Sample said. “Your brain needs to be exposed to information at least three times in order for it to truly comprehend and retain the material. Even if it is only for 20-minute intervals, you should try and present the information to your brain as much as possible.”
While most college students would argue that they do not have the time to study for their finals days in advance, if done in small 20-30-minute intervals, it can be accomplished with minimal effort.
“Careers in medicine, law, or education, all which require vast amounts of specificity and retention, cannot be achieved through cramming,” Sample said. “Relying on such an unreliable and unyielding study method.”
Ean Jury is a heath writer for The Insider