Does cramming before an exam really work?

We all have been there. The test is scheduled sometime in the future – far away. Good, so I can start tomorrow. And suddenly the exam day IS tomorrow. So what can I do to save myself? Put in an all-nighter and cram my way to success. 

But does cramming actually work before an exam? The simple answer is: No – period. The biggest problem with cramming is that your short-term memory is overloaded with too much information. 

Despite all the facts many people still rely on cramming. Let’s take a look why that is and how to avoid this for your next exam.

Cramming makes you stressed and fatigue

Really learning something is based on regular repetition to commit the material to your long-term memory so you can recall it when you need it. After looking at the same material over and over again for a long time everything appears to be familiar. Unfortunately, the brain interprets that as “having learned” the information. The problem is that when you need to access those facts again during your test this often fails. A second huge disadvantage of cramming is that you most likely spend more time without a break on the subject than is healthy. You may sacrifice your sleep which is one of the worst things you can do before an exam. The third problem with cramming is that it puts your mind and your body under a lot of stress. This will add to the nervous feeling you have anyway before the exam together with the certainty that you did not learn enough for the test. So cramming replaces the best exam advice which is being well prepared, relaxed and well rested with uncertainty, fatigue, and stressed.

What exactly is cramming?

Let’s look at what Dictionary.com says: “To fill (something) by force with more than it can easily hold.” UrbanDictionary.com describes cramming as: “The act of attempting to learn large amounts of information in a short period of time, esp. for a test in high school or college.” and at last the FreeDictionary.com defines cramming as: “To study hastily for an impending examination”. All 3 definitions imply a negative meaning: Attempting to fill something hastily by force.

Cramming worked for some of my students – here is why

I am teaching people how to pass the Chinese driver’s license exam now for many years. In fact, I wrote an App to practice for the test which allows students to send me feedback about their experience. With 1650 questions this is quite a huge amount of questions to learn. Still, the fastest ever “I did it !’ email I received was from a learner who studied for just 2 days, each day 4 hours and passed the test (90% required to pass) on the first try. I asked him how he did it and he said he focused on the differences – ignored the easy questions and made sure he didn’t overdo it. He admitted that a little luck in guessing the answers he didn’t know helped as well. I think there are 2 factors that play an important role: First, he seemed to be calm and though it would probably inconvenient to retake the test it did not really matter that much. Second, driving a car and the rules are not that different even in China (though that is not obvious when you drive there). Studies have shown that cramming might work if your subject is something you are familiar with, vocabulary for example where an educated guess or an intelligent deduction might save the day.

Why cramming doesn’t make any sense

First and foremost: We discovered before that what you “learn” during cramming will not end up in your long-term memory. So the question to be asked is: Why did you take the exam in the first place? If the goal was to just get through it then the better decision would have been not to take the exam at all. If this is something like the Chinese driver’s license it probably doesn’t matter but for real knowledge, the primary goal should always be to learn something that brings you forward in life. I kept on learning new things and taking exams because I like the challenge but primarily because I was really interested in the subject.

So what is the reason that so many people cram ?

When I did the research for this article the most asked question I found was: How can I pass a test in 3/2/1 day without learning. This might be because some people might find it hard to study. What I found is that if what you learn is something you really want to know and you bring your mind into the right mood it is so much easier to recall it. I tried to summarize 21 valuable tips on how to prepare for your next test. Take a look and your chances of passing increase significantly. In my opinion, people cram because of 2 reasons: They just don’t know how to plan this correctly or they don’t have the right mindset (yet). I once read in a book that we should greet each other not with “How are you today?” but “What are you learning today?”. I tried and earned a lot of confused reactions. When I would be asked that question I could give an answer at any given day.

How can I avoid cramming?

There are several things you can do to avoid cramming.

  1. The most obvious one is to plan ahead and create a detailed study plan so instead of learning it all at once learn a little bit every day.
  2. Improve your learning skills. This is an extensive topic so I point you to my favorite audio course about it. I highly recommend “Accelerated learning techniques” by Brian Tray and Colin Rose. This set of Audio CDs teaches you about how the memory works and how to dramatically improve it. I listened to this many times, there is a workbook included as well as relaxing music for the right mood. You can find it here on Amazon. This teaches you everything from getting into the right mood to using multiple senses to learn faster and improve your memory.
  3. If time is the issue you should read through my article “How to gain 1 hour every day with these simple sleep hacks“. Since I started to follow these rules I get so much more done. The simple trick is to reduce the amount of sleep you really need by improving your sleep quality. This gives you the missing hour you can use for your exam preparation.
  4. If you have problems with getting disturbed and thrown off track all the time there are 2 things you can do. Improve your concentration and focus. You might be interested in my article on whether meditation can help you with your study. The second thing you can do is get rid of time wasters. I have ten valuable tips and tricks four you on how to do that here.
  5. Another problem that might lead to cramming is if you make the mistake to listen to music during your preparation. In most cases, music does hurt your focus rather than improve it. You can read all about in my article “Should I listen to music while studying?

Related questions

How can I pass my test in 1 day? This was one of the most frequent questions I found when I researched this article. From what I learned this would require a caffeine-infused all-nighter which is the very definition of cramming. So the simple answer is: You can’t. Try to rechedule.

So let me finish with a quote I found in a BBC Article about this topic:

Being able to recognise something isn’t the same as being able to recall it.


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