Studying takes a lot of time and effort. While we are young we form behaviors and habits that will be with us all our lives and this also reflects in the way we learn something new.

Being able to learn efficiently will not help someone only during exams. It is a lifelong skill that defines who we are, what we do and, most times, how our finances are going to look.

Most of us don’t remember much of the information that we absorbed in a short time-span.

Sadly, this means that we can’t remember most of what we’ve learned in school. We spent hours and hours memorizing and all that time can now be considered wasted. Its value is lost along with the memories that we can’t retrieve.

This is why it is vital to learn early on how to… learn so that the information acquired infiltrates our long-term memory, from where it can be summoned over and over again, for a very long time.

Many people believe that the educational system is flawed, because pupils and students need to memorize data and facts that they will not need in real life.

The truth is that some of the information that seems to not have any use might suddenly become very relevant when someone wants to change jobs or take a different career path.

Furthermore, developing a personal learning system is invaluable, and this can only be achieved by learning. It is an action that we will continue to do for as long as we live, so… we’d better become good at it.

The most common learning method utilized by students worldwide is cramming and everyone has used it at least once. But there is a better way that is used by those who excel – the spacing effect.

In this article we will discuss both of these learning strategies in order to understand how and why they work.

What is cramming?

Cramming is a monumental effort that a person does in order to memorize a lot of information, in a very short time span.

Traditionally, cramming happens during the night. The “tradition” goes on by stating that it has to be during the night before an important exam, and the student must drink copious amounts of caffeine and stay awake for as long as humanly possible.

Joking aside, many students try to learn as much as possible, in a short amount of time. This causes them to perform poorly or to forget a lot of the information accumulated very fast.

In some instances, when exams get postponed, students need to learn everything again because none of the information that they worked so hard on learning, ever reached their long long-term memory.

Moreover, it creates a bad habit that remains with a person until adulthood and it will reflect poor evolution in job-related exams and tests.

Why doesn’t cramming work?

Generation after generation of students did this, so much so that parents and grandparents alike can relate to the term. Then, how come it isn’t efficient?

The general opinion is that cramming relies on short term memory, and for this reason  the information is outlived quickly.

This isn’t exactly accurate, as short-term memory doesn’t last until the next day. The information isn’t consolidated properly, therefore it will remain only briefly in the long-term memory.

For a new memory to be consolidated, it depends on neurological pathways, the hippocampus and neocortex. New memories are vulnerable, and if they are not consolidated by things such as emotions, stimuli or repetition, they will be at least partially forgotten.

There are many other reasons for which cramming doesn’t work as hoped, among which:

  • Stress

Even for the most positive of people, having to learn a lot of new information, in a short amount of time, with the pressure of exams and bad grades is stressful.

Stress leads to a cocktail of hormones that have a negative impact on the health status, but also affects the ability to learn by interfering with the consolidation of memories.

  • Lack of sleep

Cramming takes a lot of time, but that time is condensed in just a few days and nights. This means that the students won’t be getting enough sleep or fresh air.

Remember the consolidation process that we were talking about? Most of it happens while we sleep and losing sleep means losing the information that the student is learning during the hours that they are supposed to be sleeping.

  • Bad food

Eating habits may not seem related to memory, but most students require late night snacks that are usually sweet, in order to cope with being tired. Sugary drinks, and sugar itself were linked to poorer short-term memory.

It’s ironic how simply trying to learn as much as possible, as fast as possible, sabotages the learning process itself and influences the brain on the short and on the long term.

Cramming does work in one regard and it is related to repetition – the consolidation of memories that are already there. But, even then, it should be done while avoiding stress, excessive sugar and caffeine intake and lack of sleep.

Let’s see how to really learn for exams, so that cramming doesn’t become a last minute solution that we encounter every term.

The Spacing effect

The spacing effect is a learning strategy that requires less time than cramming is more efficient and allows for the encoding of information in the long-term memory.

While using the spacing effect, information first enters short-term memory, but it is also utilized by the working memory.

The working memory is an integrated part of the short-term memory, but it also manipulates information.  This means that the information is understood and not simply mirrored.

The spacing effect concept is based on the principle that spreading information in short sessions that are spread over in time, is a more efficient method of learning.

Interestingly enough, spacing information works for all ages, as studies were carried out on different age groups, from infancy until adulthood.

In this article we will look at the spacing effect, a learning technique that has proved to be very valuable in helping students memorize information, without the risk of forgetting it soon after.

Maybe one of the most fascinating traits of the spacing effect is the fact that humans aren’t the only species that learns better this way, as evidence suggests that even simple organisms can be trained with this method.

The History behind the spacing effect

In 1885, Herman Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, published the book: “A contribution to experimental psychology” in which he detailed his findings of what was to become the spacing effect.

He came with the theory that the average person forgets a large amount of what they learned in a day. So much so, that in 24h they can only remember 20%.

Over time, the effect was studied in a multitude of ways, on different cohorts and different types of learning and memorization were analyzed.

Every time, the results were the same. The more spaced out rehearsal of a memory was, the better the outcome.

Another important particularity is that forgetting seems to be beneficial to this process. As, the harder it is to remember something, the more the student will remember remembering the information.

The neuronal pathways that form through repetition that is distant in time, will make the memory easier to access.

How does the spacing effect apply to students?

Even if the science behind it sounds complicated, it really isn’t.

The main notion worth remembering is that studying in short sessions of 20-30 minutes, in different days is more efficient than studying the entire subject in one long session, even if there isn’t too much information.

Ideally, the entire material should be divided into short, half an hour study sessions. These sessions should be spread out in time as much as possible.

Of course, all the information should be learned until the exam and this makes it difficult to spread it too much.

We will give you an example, to help you understand the notion better.

Let’s say that you have to study a subject related to frogs, and it would take you 4 hours to memorize all the relevant information.

If you cram all the studying in those 4 hours, in a few days you will notice that you don’t remember much of it.

However, if you spread it in 8, 30 minutes sessions, you will remember most of the valuable information.

You may be wondering why, since you will have to divide the subject and you are not learning the exact same thing.

Every time you will start learning about frogs, you will retrieve all the memories that are related to this subject, and retrieving them at different times is the basis of the spacing effect.

Learning multiple subjects

School isn’t just about one subject, and being able to learn about more subjects doesn’t mean that the spacing effect can’t be applied.

The 30 minutes sessions spread in time just refer to one subject. This means that a student can learn about multiple subjects in a day, as long as they take proper breaks. The spacing effect is applied on each subject, and is unaffected by the others.

In fact, this practice was shown to boost memory capacity and improve retention, so much so that the term interleaving learning has emerged.

Interleaving learning

This relatively new method has only been studied recently and many professionals are still skeptical about using it. But evidence suggests that it’s highly efficient in different settings.

Interleaving learning means intercalating different notions in one study session. This breaks the flow of information and starts another one.

We are used to learning one skill until we have mastered it and only then move to another related skill. Interleaving suggests that we can do both at the same time, and that we can do it better.

This means that instead of first mastering the Pythagorean Theorem (like in the study linked to this article), a student can learn different theorems at the same time.

This method of learning could help in the development of strategic thinking and it’s definitely a step forward in educational psychology.

The importance of Tests

Tests are hated by everyone, but for that one student who seems to know everything. But they are a very important tool booth for the student and for the professor.

While teachers learn how students are evolving, the students are working their way through their memories and each time they retrieve a memory, they also consolidate it.

Tests can be viewed as forced repetition, but the fact that they are structured differently than the course, helps the student learn the information from a different angle.

Tests are difficult for a reason. The fact that a memory is difficult to retrieve makes the student improve their retention because they will create new neural pathways.

Also, not remembering the answer to a question in the test, will make the information easy to remember when they will encounter it again.

So, no matter how good or bad a student does on a test, it is still a very valuable learning tool.

Since the spacing effect is such a great tool, and it’s so well researched, why do students still use cramming to learn before exams?

Well, children and teenagers tend to procrastinate until there is not enough time left to use anything else but cramming. But most of those who successfully use the spacing effect once, find it so accessible that they are less inclined to procrastinate.

The key elements to remember from this article should be:

  • Divide and conquer – spread learning on each subject in 30 minutes study sessions;
  • Try to have a one day break between study sessions on the same subject;
  • When possible practice interleaving learning;
  • Always get a good night sleep to consolidate memories;
  • Test yourself if you find that you don’t master the subject;
  • Choose to refresh memory by testing rather than simply reading.

The fact that memory and learning are constantly researched is bound to bring new techniques and strategies to maximize student’s efforts, and hopefully the educational system will keep up.