Three Helpful Tips to Avoid Cramming for Your Next Exam

I gazed wearily at the pile of books in front of me… “So much to do!” My eyes traveled to the clock on the wall, as I completed the thought, “And SO little time!”

When I was a college student, my inclination when I was this overwhelmed was to ignore the problem. I figured that I could “wing it,” whether it was a test, a speech, or a term paper. Waiting until the last minute to let the pressure drive me to completion became a way of life…a very unsuccessful way of life.

The notion that “cramming for the exam” is the best way to prepare has got to go away. It doesn’t work! In a recent study at UCLA, “cramming for a test or plowing through a pile of homework is actually counterproductive.” A student who sacrifices sleep for study time is likely to have more academic problems the following day than a student who prepares in a more regulated fashion and gets plenty of sleep.

Here are three tips for better study habits that will help you to avoid cramming and provide better long term academic success:

  1. Discover your Inner Clock “Sweet Spot”: The time of day when you are most alert and energized is the best time to study. Personally, I am a morning person. My most productive time of day is usually between 5:00 and 9:00 in the morning. One of my friends is a lawyer. He doesn’t even get out of bed until 9:00 most mornings, and will often work until 1:00 in the morning. He finds that he is most productive after 10:00 at night. You should also take this into consideration when scheduling your classes. As an academic advisor, one of my first questions to incoming freshmen is, “Are you a morning person, an afternoon person, or a night owl?” I teach my first class of the day at 8:00 AM. As an instructor, the last thing I want in my early morning class is a group of students who can barely keep their eyes open! If a student tells me that they hate getting up early, I usually recommend that they don’t start their class schedule until at least 10:00 (in one case, I had a student who slept in most mornings until 10, so I started her schedule at 11:30).
  1. Take Command of Your Weekly Schedule: Each Sunday night, I like to sit down with my calendar and look at my schedule for the week ahead. I note when I have classes, office hours, scheduled meetings, upcoming events, and so forth. I schedule time for personal development (exercise, reading, and spiritual renewal), family time, and professional opportunities. As a college student, it is vital that you take command of your own schedule, as well. It is too inviting to allow the demands of your peers, employer, and even parents to dictate your calendar. You need to schedule study times into your week. Pre-decide when those study times are, and don’t let other outside influences affect those times. There are only 168 hours in a week, and you should be spending at least 56 of them renewing yourself with effective sleep habits. So that means you only have 112 hours in a week to accomplish all of your other goals. Time is a precious commodity: it is the only commodity that everyone has in common. From the poorest person in the world to Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, we all have the same amount of time allocated to us. Are you going to let someone else tell you how to use that time?
  1. Prepare as You Go: Some instructors will allow you to use some prepared notes when you take an exam. Personally, I allow my math students to use a sheet of notes on which they can write any examples, formulas, or definitions that they feel will help them. As I teach, I will tell them about good examples or important formulas for their “help sheet.” Unfortunately, I find that many of my students seemingly wait until the night before (or the morning of) the test to scribble down any last minute notes that they think might help. This is equivalent to cramming and is the least effective way to prepare. Instead, you should be taking good notes and preparing your help sheet during your instructor’s lectures. As I teach, I make sure to point out to my students what concepts and formulas would be particularly useful on their help sheets. Your instructor is likely to highlight and repeat information that they believe is valuable. If they believe it is valuable, it will likely be on your test. Write it down! If your instructor does not allow you to use a sheet of prepared notes, you can still prepare effectively for your test by rewriting the notes you take in class. Since your note-taking can often become nothing more than frantic scribbles, you can retain further information be carefully rewriting your notes in a non-hurried setting. This will reinforce the concepts taught in class while making it easier to refer back to the notes during future test preparation.

With just a little effort, following these three steps can increase your likelihood of college success and help you to achieve more than you ever thought was possible. Good luck!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “Three Helpful Tips to Avoid Cramming for Your Next Exam

  1. I never thought about scheduling “me” time but that is a good tip that I will try to implement because how can you be helpful to others if you are not taking care of yourself? Another helpful tip is to turn off phones, computers etc when studying, stop letting facebook, twitter etc control you & your time. One day I was visiting my mother & my sister literally spent most of her so called study time checking her Facebook, what a waste of time & energy.

    • Yes, the need to schedule personal “recharging time” is critical to personal success! As you rightly point out, we cannot help others when we are emotionally and physically depleted ourselves. You make another great point, Ashley, when you point out that social media and electronic devices draw our focus away from many areas of our lives, including studying!

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