Question: What’s wrong with the following conversation?
Student #1: “I have a final exam tomorrow.”
Student #2: “Bummer. How are you going to study?”
Student #1: “I dunno. Probably just read the book some more…?”
Answer: The simplest answer is that this student has no direction.
If you are one of the countless students who has had similar conversations, you are not alone. I witnessed this real conversation, and thousands of students have similar conversations weekly. So what do you do with 48 hours to go and a mountain of material still to learn? You cram. Schoolwork overwhelms everyone sometimes, but breaking your attempts to cram for an exam into 3 simple steps will instantly improve your study time: “Ready, Go, Stop.”
Step 1 to the effective exam cram: “Ready”
This step is easy: get ready. Make sure you have all that you need to study for at least 50 minutes. We recommend a 50/10 study/break rhythm until you’ve covered all your ground. This includes
- a good pen or pencil
- a good college-ruled notepad
- your books
- your notes
If you’ve been taking good notes, you may not even need your book for an effective exam cram. Either way though, you need physical copies of those notes – either handwritten or printed out.
“What? Print out digital notes? Kill more trees? What about the environment!” Well, trees grow back. Your grades won’t. You need to get the material into your hands, so print away. Believe it or not, touching the pages helps a lot, especially for you tactile/kinesthetic and highly visual learners. Dudes, this is most of you.
Also, turn off all electronic and social media: no Facebook, no Twitter, and TiVo the Walking Dead. You can feed your nightmares after you ace your exam.
Step 2 of the effective exam cram: “Go”
Just go. Quit wasting time. Just do it.
Do what? Make a study guide. Use your notes, record the Big Ideas and the Key Details, and don’t be shy about taking up space. Use that pencil and paper; you’ll get extra kinesthetic benefits if you write with your hand rather than just your keyboard. Typing is helpful, but the actions of writing with a pen and paper help even more. Make charts, illustrations, arrows, color coded graphs, or anything else to connect ideas. Connect as many ideas as possible in as many ways as possible.
Here’s the big idea to this portion of an effective exam cram: make a study guide, and make it as quickly as you can without ignoring the important ideas you need to learn. Remember to review each page as you finish it. Mark any ideas which aren’t crystal clear in the margin, and go over them again after the study guide is done.
Once it’s done, quiz yourself on each topic and see how much you know. Mark what you don’t know, keep moving. This is by far the best way to have an effective exam cram by yourself. A modified version of this for a group cramming session can be helpful too.
Step 3 to the effective exam cram: “Stop”
When the timer goes off, so does your brain. Quit cramming and take a break.
Hopefully you’ve set an alarm for your study time that will go off at 50 minutes. If that’s too long for you, check out how to gradually increase your study stamina. You need to be as religious as an altar boy about taking these 10 minute breaks. Scientists call this the need for spacing, and it can improve your long-term retention significantly.
During your break, don’t think about school. Think about killer whales, or skate boarding, or your latest crush, or college basketball, or muscle cars, or the Washington Redskins, or … get the picture? The less thought-intensive the better. Give your brain a break. By allowing yourself time to think about something else, your mind will actually retain information much better.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
Now that you have an effective approach for how to cram for a test, remember that we encourage you to study in such a way that cramming is unnecessary. You’ll save time and perform better if you avoid having to cram. If you’ve had success with this model of cramming for a test, please include some of your insights in the comments.