Cramming and Crashing: How to Break the Cycle

I often work with students who, despite the many hours spent meticulously making color-coded flashcards, are still bombing quizzes and tests. These sweet kiddos are exasperated; they took careful notes, they copied those notes, they drilled themselves on those notes. What were they doing wrong?  

The main issue lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes for effective learning, a misunderstanding that stems from not fully grasping the difference between encoding and retrieval. It has been shown that spending more time on retrieval practice leads to more effective learning and can helps students get out of their cram and crash cycle.

Encoding, storage, and retrieval make up the learning and memory process. So, what’s the difference between these three categories? Encoding occurs when students receive and record new information (ie, they listen and take notes in class). Storage takes place when students hold on to that informations over time (ie, they can keep that information in their heads over time). Retrieval happens when students can recall that information when they need it (ie, they can produce answers on a test and they can remember and apply formulas).

Many of those students who choke on test day, their eyes still bloodshot from their cram-session the night before, have spent too much concentrated time on encoding and not enough spaced time on retrieval. They channeled their energy into encoding: their notes are uniform, lovingly-highlighted and adorned in Post-its and their neon flashcards are neatly stacked on their desks. What they’ve failed to do, though, is give their brains a chance to practice storage and retrieval. This can be fixed by allocating more spaced retrieval practice over time.  To do this, students should:

  1. Plan to study in shorter bursts for multiple days leading up to test day.

  2. Practice recall and application rather than just memorization.

Continually recalling and applying information rather than memorizing facts helps facilitate retrieval. In other words, students should practice restating the information in their own words in many different contexts, not just regurgitate what’s on the back of flashcards. They should work out practice problems, not just recite formulas. They should practice writing paragraphs, not just restate grammar rules. When test day rolls around, they’re more apt to apply the information they’ve learned.

So, what does this look like for parents, tutors, and teachers? You should encourage your students to start studying early, move past memorization, and utilize applied practice over time rather than cramming. With these tips, your student can move past their cram and crash cycle--and glide more easily into a successful semester.

This article has been written by Staci Stutsman.