Cramming for exams should be avoided at all costs. You should only cram for
an exam as a last resort. It's hard to take in and retain a large amount of
information in a short period of time. Some of the tips on studying and preparing
for a test may over lap with the cramming techniques below.
Take Care of Yourself
Cramming for Exams
Cramming is a last resort. The most effective way to learn, and achieve high marks, is to start your studying at the beginning of the term, and regularly review the material that's covered in class.
If You Have to... You Have to...
You have to figure out what is important and what to ignore. Check the syllabus for the course. Check the course description. Check your notes for underlined points that describe major themes, structure, concepts. You need to understand those. Cramming leaves no time for niceties. You need the main points and nothing else.
You Need a Plan
Now figure out how much time you have. Be conservative. It's no good making a plan that you don't carry out. Allow for sleep, eating, breaks etc. How many hours do you have?
Work out a cramming schedule. Spend 30-35% of the remaining time going over the material that you deem the most important. Spend the remaining 65-70% of your time in repeating that material to yourself until you know it. Here's how.
Go over the material you have selected for your study effort. Read all the notes, paying attention to underlining or any emphasis that has been recorded. Now use your notes (or the textbook if you must) to create an outline of the material you are studying. Write down the broad concepts, use itemized lists for the details, include any examples taken from lectures, and in particular, any information highlighted in the notes as being emphasized by the instructor (this is why attending lectures/class is important).
Now go over the material again, formulating questions that might be asked on an exam or test, and answering those questions using the notes. Record the questions in your outline, along with point form answers.
At some point, when you believe you have a decent grasp of the material, start using the outline you created. Essentially you want to memorize the outline, and be able to re-write it from memory. That tells you it should be condensed, with no fluff, just all stuff. That memorized outline is going to be your salvation.
SLEEP! If you don't get enough sleep your brain won't retain all the information that you have crammed in there.
Don't Cover Everything
Avoid the temptation to go over everything in a shallow manner. You will then master nothing. Remember, at this point your aim is a pass. Using these cramming strategies, you have already identified the most significant material. And you have focused heavily on it. The questions with the most marks and most of the large mark questions should come from material you studied. Don't do yourself the disservice of just skimming the important information so that you have time to also skim the least important.
If You Don't Have Notes
If you don't have notes, you need to essentially create some for yourself. Since you don't have a record of what the professor considers most important, you will have to figure it out on your own. Go through the textbook, paying special attention to the introduction, the first paragraph of each chapter, chapter summaries and any questions or study notes at the end of each chapter (sometimes these are included in the body of the chapter as breakout boxes).
The introduction should give you a good clue as to where to focus. While going over the material and making notes (as described above) pay particular attention to examples in the text. You need to understand them. If you had taken notes in class, the prof would have presented examples to aid in understanding. You will have to do your best on your own. And that's it. Carry on as above, except that you will have to wade through more material. It is extra important for you to create an outline. You don't want to go through the text more than once (after you have identified what material you will be focusing on).
Avoid Cramming... Why?
Your anxiety level will go up
You will lose sleep and eat poorly because of this
You will get sick more easily because of this
You will miss the exam because of this
You will take the much harder essay make-up exam because of this
You will fail the exam.
Seriously, at a minimum you will do worse on the exam than you would have otherwise.
Why does cramming not work?
There is a biological reason for this. Cramming places information into our brains in short term storage. This is where you put everyday information that is not really worth remembering. In order to learn we have to transfer information into long term memory. Once there, you can retrieve it far easier over a longer period of time. Here's an overview the differences:
Short term memory:
All information is processed in the brain and stored in short term memory. The problem is that this information sort of overloads the brain and is not kept for very long. Can you remember every single event that happened to you in a given day? Think of the literally thousands of bits of information you are exposed to every day. It's not necessary to remember it all, so the brain dumps it after a time.
Can you remember what you had for lunch two days ago? What shirt you wore? How much lunch cost? How many steps there are in preparing for exams? No. What makes you think you will remember some factoid from class, that you never heard of before? Sure you may remember it for a day or two, but that's it. Only when you make an effort to remember something repeatedly do you transfer that information into the other kind of memory, long term memory.
Long term memory:
This is the type of memory used when we want to store information in a more permanent way. This is either done by making information especially memorable (like getting burned means not to play with fire) or by repetition. Ever try to remember a new phone number? How many time do you look it up before you remember it?
Course information is the same thing. If you're learning something new it's harder to remember. It takes constant review and trying to remember specific information before you actually can. Once something is transferred from short term to long term memory we say it has been learned. (or at least remembered)
Cramming fails because you're relying on short term memory. This type is fairly
unreliable. Where were you at 2:32 yesterday afternoon? Your brain once knew.
Maybe there was a crime at your apartment and the police want to know. Short
term memory fails under stress. You doubt your memory. The same thing happens
when you take an exam, it's stressful.
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