The Science of Cramming, or How to Prepare for Standardized Tests
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and teenagers cramming for exams.
Almost everyone crams at one point or another. Many high school students just have too much on their plates: school, homework, extracurricular activities, chores, and (sometimes) jobs consume the days of teenagers across the country. So, it’s natural that students often stay up deep into the night to cram for exams or complete homework assignments.
But while this practice has been a mainstay of high school students for some time, research suggests that it is highly ineffective.
A 2009 UCLA study found that following a long-term study plan was more effective than cramming for 90% of participating students, even though 72% of them believed that cramming had been more effective. This delusion regarding the effectiveness of cramming stems from a common error: many of us believe that familiarity is synonymous with recall. That is, we tend to assume that familiarizing ourselves with material for a short period of time right before an exam will help us recall the necessary information at the time of the test.
But, as cognitive neuroscientist Tom Stafford explains, familiarity is a poor measure of our ability to recall material. The reason for this is neurological.
The human brain simply isn’t made for cramming.
When we cram, we activate the visual cortex, the part of the brain responsible for recognizing visual objects. After five consecutive hours staring at a page of notes, your visual cortex will have processed the content much the same way you might process a book cover, an advertisement, or a person’s face—enough to recognize the notes as familiar, as something that your brain knows it has processed before.
But five consecutive hours isn’t nearly enough to trigger the areas of the brain responsible for information recall, such as the frontal cortex and temporal lobe. These areas are where your brain uses clues (such as questions on an exam) to piece together the memories it needs to construct narratives and provide answers, to connect abstract principles with concrete problems, and to discover solutions that require more than memorization.
The way to train this area of your brain is not through cramming but through what cognitive psychologists call “spacing,” the practice of “spacing learning events apart rather than massing them together.” The “spacing effect” tells us that studying for 20 minutes per day for 15 consecutive days is much more effective than studying for five consecutive hours the day before the test.
This rule applies to standardized tests just as much as it does to any other exam.
Both the ACT and SAT are designed to test what students learn in high school. They’re designed to test general knowledge and skills accumulated over time, not acquired through rote memorization. But standardization is a tricky business: no two schools are alike, and so students often find that they have insufficient familiarity with the writing, reading, and math skills tested on standardized tests. Preparing for either test requires much more than five hours the night before, or even 20 minutes per day for 15 days. To avoid “cramming” for the SAT, most students should begin preparing in their sophomore or even freshman year of high school.
As I’ve discussed in detail in a previous post (One Habit That Will Help Raise Your SAT and ACT Reading Scores), good standardized test preparation depends on developing strong reading and studying habits over time.
Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day, and neither are top-tier SAT and ACT scores.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.