Cramming vs. Distributed Practice: What’s the Best Way to Prepare for Exams?


Best Way to Prepare for Exams

We’ve all been there – the dread of an upcoming exam finally hits, and you realize you’ve left studying to the last minute. In a panic, you chug coffee and sacrifice sleep to cram all the information into your brain in one desperate, caffeine-fueled sprint. Questioning yourself “What’s the best way to prepare for Exams?”

Maybe you’ve pulled an all-nighter with a small group of friends, deliriously quizzing each other at 4 am on topics that seemed to make sense just hours ago. While cramming like this may help you scrape by in the short term, it’s a highly inefficient and stressful way to learn.

Distributed practice, on the other hand, involves spreading out your studying over a longer period of time. By developing the habit of frequent review and spacing out sessions, you maximize your brain’s ability to retain and master the material for lasting understanding. Backed by extensive research, distributed practice is by far the superior approach when it comes to effective learning and exam preparation.

What is Cramming?

Cramming refers to the practice of compressing all your studying into a short time right before an exam. Its main characteristics are long, marathon study sessions starting just days or even hours before the test, as you try to force a large amount of information into your brain rapidly.

The perceived benefit of cramming is that it allows you to get all the key concepts fresh in your mind for the exam. For some, this frantic, last-ditch effort can yield just enough short-term retention to squeak by on the test.

However, while cramming may help you remember some material in the very short term, the knowledge tends to be surface-level and quickly fades away. It’s an incredibly stressful, inefficient way to try to learn.

Worse yet, cramming reinforces bad study habits and a mindset that you can put off working until the last possible second. It deprives you of the benefits of properly encoded long-term learning. The reality is, that cramming is an ineffective study technique that should be avoided if possible…

Why Cramming Doesn’t Work

While cramming may allow you to temporarily keep information accessible in your brain, it disrupts the process of memory consolidation needed for long-term learning. Memory consolidation is the process by which memories become stable in the brain over time. 

When you cram, you’re essentially attempting to bypass this process by forcing information into your mind in a short period. This leads to fragile, unstable memories that fade rapidly according to the “forgetting curve” – with much of the crammed knowledge being lost soon after the exam.

Cramming also puts you under immense stress and anxiety as you race against the clock. This increases the risk of burnout, exhaustion, and even health issues. It cultivates bad habits of procrastination and last-minute panic rather than diligent preparation.

What is Distributed Practice

Distributed practice is the process of breaking up your studying into multiple, spaced-out sessions over a longer period of time. Rather than cramming everything in at the last minute, this technique has you regularly review and revisit the material. Its main characteristics are:

  • Studying in shorter, more frequent sessions (e.g. 30-60 minutes per day)
  • Spacing out your studying over many days, weeks, or months
  • Revisiting topics cyclically through spaced repetition

Spaced repetition is a key component of distributed practice. It involves reviewing topics at strategic intervals with increasing space in between. This taps into our brain’s ability to solidify memories more effectively over longer periods of time.

Spaced-out studying gives your brain the time it needs to consolidate memories. This relaxed yet repetitive approach strengthens recall and retention compared to the last-minute, information overload of cramming.

Why Distributed Practice Works 

Distributed practice isn’t just about spreading out your studying – it’s about strategically spacing out your review sessions to optimize how your brain stores information. Here’s why this approach is so effective:

Making Memories Stick: The Power of Spaced-Out Sessions

When you cram information, it gets temporarily stored in your short-term memory. But without review, it quickly fades away. Distributed practice allows this new information to transition from short-term to long-term memory through a process called consolidation. By revisiting the material at spaced-out intervals, you strengthen the neural connections associated with that information. Each review acts like a reinforcement, making the information more permanent and easier to recall later.

Active Recall: The Secret Weapon of Distributed Practice

Distributed practice goes beyond simply rereading your notes.  Self-testing and active recall are powerful tools that further enhance memory consolidation. When you actively try to remember information, like practicing flashcards or explaining concepts out loud, you create stronger neural connections. This retrieval process strengthens the memory and makes it more likely you’ll remember the information when it counts,  during an exam or in real-world application.

How to Implement Distributed Practice

Ready to ditch the cramming and level up your studying? Here’s your guide to creating a distributed practice schedule:

Crafting Your Schedule:

  1. Chunk it Up: Break down the material you need to learn into bite-sized pieces. Think chapters, topics, or even specific concepts.
  2. Spread It Out: Don’t wait until the last minute! Schedule shorter review sessions throughout your study period. Aim for spaced repetition, gradually increasing the intervals between reviews as you progress. Start with daily or every-other-day sessions, then extend them to weekly or bi-weekly as your memory strengthens.
  3. Mix it Up: Keep things engaging by incorporating different activities. Review notes, practice flashcards, summarize key points in writing, or explain concepts out loud (even if it’s just to yourself!).
  4. Be Flexible: Life happens! Adjust your schedule as needed. Missed a session? No worries! Pick up where you left off and adjust the spacing accordingly.

Leveraging Spaced Repetition Tools:

While creating a plan is key, some great tools can streamline spaced repetition:

  • Flashcard Apps: Utilize digital flashcards like Anki or Quizlet to build custom study decks and schedule automatic reviews based on spaced repetition algorithms.
  • Online Learning Platforms: Many platforms incorporate spaced repetition, offering bite-sized lessons and quizzes delivered at optimal intervals.
  • Calendar Apps: Integrate spaced repetition reminders into your existing calendar app to stay on track with your study schedule.

Best Way to Prepare for Exams

Distributed practice, with its spaced-out review sessions and focus on active recall, is a far superior method to cramming for exams. It promotes long-term memory and a deeper understanding of the material.  So ditch the cramming and adopt distributed practice for a smarter, more effective way to learn and succeed!

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