The average college student spends three and a half hours a day in educational activities like attending class or studying. If you are a student with many job and family responsibilities, it can be tempting to avoid traditional study and instead cram (review material at the last minute) the night before a test.
But does cramming save time in the long run? And is it as bad a study method as instructors would have you believe?
Rereading material right before a test can help you recall facts in the short-term and score better on a test than you would otherwise. A bit of cramming is better than no studying at all – at least as far as your grades are concerned. However, it isn't a great way to recall information in the long-term. Basically, cramming can help you pass a unit quiz, but not so much a final cumulative exam.
It's important to remember that some classes will contain information that you will be indirectly tested on in future courses. For example, if you want to get into nursing, you will need to remember anatomical terms. It's a good idea to get the names for parts of the body in your long-term memory during your first anatomy class so that you don't have to struggle to recall them in the future.
A 2009 study indicated that students tend to believe that studying material all at once – cramming – is more effective than study sessions that are spread out. However, the same research study showed that this simply isn't true. In fact, spaced-out study sessions were more effective for 90% of participants.
While there are some benefits to last-minute review of study materials, pulling all-nighter study sessions is almost never worth it. Not getting enough sleep leads to problems with cognition and alertness that can affect your test taking abilities and even grades in other courses. In fact, these effects can last for days.
If you hope to retain information in the long-term, there are a few methods that have been shown to help in addition to study sessions that are spread out.
Frequently changing study locations has been shown to help with memory retention.
Periodically test yourself to make sure you will recall answers on the exam day. Flashcards are a great way to do this, especially with vocabulary words.
Sleep is believed to play an important role in forming memories. Don't skimp on sleep to review your notes one last time.
While cramming can be helpful in certain circumstances, it generally isn't a great standalone method to retain information. Reading your notes again close to the time of an exam can be a great study technique when it's paired with traditional study methods.
Sometimes life gets hectic and before you know it, it's the night before a test and your only option is cramming. Cramming is better than not studying at all, but remember that studying spaced out over days is the best way to retain information in the long term.