How to Cram for an Exam

Updated on July 13, 2019
K S Lane profile image

K S Lane is a student of science and is deeply passionate about educating others on her favourite topics.

So, you've got an exam in the next few days and you haven't studied. It can happen to the best of us; you get sidetracked studying for a different subject or hanging out with friends and suddenly you have an exam tomorrow morning, a heap of unorganised notes in front of you, and your stress levels are about to hit critical. Trust me, I've been there.

If you're in this situation, the first thing to do is not give up hope. Yes, you probably should have started studying weeks ago, but you didn't and there's no changing that. However, there's still a way to make use of the precious little time you have left; cramming.

Many people's idea of cramming for an exam or test consists of reading a textbook until their eyes fall out, but in practice this is barely better than not studying at all. There are proven, carefully devised, efficient ways to use your study time that will mean that while you might not ace your exam, you at least have a decent shot of passing it.

This article lists five tips and strategies to help you cram for your upcoming exam and, with hard work and a little bit of luck, knock it out of the park!

This article explains the best way to cram for an exam or test in five simple, easy to follow steps
This article explains the best way to cram for an exam or test in five simple, easy to follow steps | Source

1. Make a Game Plan

The most important step in cramming for an exam is to make a detailed, written plan. While this may seem like a waste of time to some people (why can't I just hit the books already!?) it's the difference between having a productive and targeted study session that will set you up to pass your exam and spending useless hours flipping through books and panicking about how much time you have left. Your study plan should include the following:

  • A list of everything you need to know. Comb back through your study materials and break the content down into topics, subtopics, and individual bullet points. This is going to be the most time-consuming portion of your planning session, but it will also give you a concrete idea of what you need to tackle. As you continue with your cramming session you can cross off each point as you come to it, which will help to encourage and motivate you and will also help you keep track of what you've covered and what you still need to go over.
  • A timetable. Map out the hours you have left and, for each one, fill in what you plan to achieve during that time period. You're cramming, so you won't be able to include too many breaks and rest hours, but make sure that at minimum you schedule in ten minutes of free time for every two hours of study and seven hours of sleep. I'll explain why this is so important later on, but for now you'll just have to trust that this is the best way to help you stay focused.
  • A list of study techniques. Brainstorm all of the study techniques that you've found help you the most. Flashcards, text reading, practice questions- whatever works for you, write it down. As you're studying, you can go back and refer to this list any time you need to change things up.
  • A list of study materials. Writing out all of the materials that you have to help you cram is invaluable. If you have notes from class, write down what topics they're on (by cross-referencing with your 'need to know' list). If you have multiple textbooks, note down which book has the best explanation of which topic. If your teacher has given you hand out sheets on certain subjects, write that down too. After finishing your list make sure to compile all of your resources in an easy to reach place near your desk. This way, when you're working your way down your list of the topics you need to know you can instantly pick out which study resource is going to have the information you need and grab it without needing to tear your desk apart looking for it.

All in all, making your plan will probably take about an hour, or a little longer if you need to go searching for your study materials. During this hour you might be itching to just grab your textbook and dive right in as you see your 'need to know' list increase and increase, but it's important to stay strong and finish your plan. After it's done you're going to feel exponentially less stressed which, according to a study published in the journal of Learning and Memory, will help to boost your memory-power and thus make your study more effective.

The first step to a successful cramming session is to make a detailed plan
The first step to a successful cramming session is to make a detailed plan | Source

2. Study Time (Keep it Simple!)

Most other people would fill this step full of the latest, shiny, science-packed and researcher approved study techniques.

I'm not going to do that.

While trying new study techniques is something that everyone should endeavour to do now and again, a cramming session is not the place to experiment. It'll take you at least ten minutes to get a proper handle on the new technique, and if you happen to try one that doesn't click for you you'll find yourself wasting hours trying to learn in a way that your brain just doesn't like.

Unless you're in your first year of school (in which case you definitely shouldn't be cramming for tests- go and kick a ball around outside of something!) then you've had to revise for a test before. Even if it may not be obvious to you right away, you already have a favourite study technique that works for you.

In step one you wrote down a list of learning methods that you like; step two is the time to bring that list out and start using it. Make flashcards, read your notes aloud, speed-read your textbook- whatever works for you, do it until your eyeballs fall out (metaphorically, of course- if your eyes start to bulge out of your head please go see a doctor). Make sure to mix things up and not just rely on one technique, and ideally you should be using multiple strategies for each topic (ie. re-write over your notes and then answer practice questions), but the person who knows how you learn best is you.

Scrap the tempting, fancy learning strategies that claim that they'll help, and instead knuckle down and study!

Step Two: Hit the books!
Step Two: Hit the books!

3. Take Lots of Breaks

If you've ever had to do any kind of study or work whatsoever, then you know the difference between the amount of time you spend on a task and the amount of time that you actually focus for. We've all been there; staring at a single page of text for an hour and reading the same paragraph over and over because it doesn't seem to stick. If you're cramming for an exam then you're probably stressed, which can make you feel irritable and therefore less likely to focus. That's why it's essential, especially during a marathon study session like the one you're about to embark on, to take breaks.

  • What should I do during breaks? By 'taking breaks' I don't mean grabbing your phone and scrolling through social media until you look up and realise that it's already time for bed. In fact, a good general rule about study breaks is to stay away from your phone and the internet completely. It's easy to lose track of time while using technology and you can find that your quick break turns into an hour-long Instagram session. Instead, move completely away from your phone, either by going into another room or by sitting outside. Set an alarm and sit and read, do part of a puzzle, draw, meditate- whatever it is that relaxes you. Effective break-taking is all about choosing an activity that you enjoy, but that you can easily put down again once it's time to get back to the books.
  • How often should I take breaks? Research differs on the frequency and length of the breaks you should take. Methods like the Pomodoro Technique suggest five minutes rest for every twenty-five minutes of work, while others suggest ten minutes for every hour, or even half an hour every two to three hours. My advice in this regard is to figure out what timing works for you. If you've got a short attention span then short, frequent breaks may be the better way to go, whereas if you're able to stay focused for a long time you should stick with longer and less frequent breaks. You also don't necessarily have to keep things consistent- if you're feeling focused and energised keep riding that wave until you feel like it's time to take a break again. Listen to your body and your brain and figure out what works best for you!

Phones are great! Just not during study breaks.
Phones are great! Just not during study breaks. | Source

4. Teach Someone Else (Or Yourself)

I know that I previously told you to stick to the study techniques that you've tried and tested before, but this strategy is so criminally underused that I felt the need to include it as its own point.

Once you've gotten a good handle on a topic or point that you need to know for your upcoming test, take a few minutes to explain it to someone else. This could be a classmate, family member, or to yourself in a mirror; it doesn't matter. If it's a complicated concept you don't have to go into detail, either; try simplifying the idea so that the layman can understand it. If you're able to take a difficult idea and distil it into a more simple form then the chances are that you know it inside out and will be able to tackle any question that an examiner might throw at you.

A study published in the Journal of Contemporary Educational Psychology found that those who taught others a concept after learning it themselves experienced "more persistent learning gains," which basically means that they ended up with a better understanding of the topic than those who didn't teach others after learning.

This is a simple, quick, and relatively easy study technique that will really improve your memory in the long run. However, like anything, if it's not working for you then don't try to force it. Like I mentioned before, a cramming session isn't the time to be trying study methods that you aren't compatible with!

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5. Sleep!

Getting a good night's sleep before a test or exam is the most critical thing that you can do to set yourself up to succeed. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disorders, sleep deprivation causes a massive decline in cognitive function (aka brain power). Even skipping one night of sleep can cause your memory, reading comprehension, and word recall to take a hit. In other words, you're going to have a difficult time reading and understanding the exam questions, remembering the information that you need to answer the question, and then writing a coherent answer. It can be so, so tempting to stay up for a few extra hours and review your notes a few more times, but in the long run this hurts rather than helps.

How much sleep you should be getting varies from person to person and is dependent on age and other personal factors, but as a rule you should be getting at least seven hours of sleep the night before a test, and if you can add an additional few hours onto this time then absolutely do it.

Of course, there's no use getting into bed at 10 PM only to toss and turn for the next three hours and waste precious time not sleeping. Make sure not to go directly from your desk to bed, but rather distract yourself by reading a book or listening to some calming music for at least ten minutes before trying to sleep. This way, your mind will stray from the stress of your upcoming test and you'll be able to sleep without names, dates, and formulas running through your mind.

After a hard day studying, the most important thing you can do is get some sleep
After a hard day studying, the most important thing you can do is get some sleep | Source

In Conclusion:

And there we have it; five simple steps to designing the most effective, focused, intensive cramming session possible. My sixth and final tip is to get off the internet. You can read articles like this one until your eyes bleed, but if you don't put the advice into practice then you're just wasting time. Turn off your computer and your phone and start making your study plan!

Sources and Further Reading:

  • Stress and Memory: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1074742709001993
  • Teaching Others: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X13000209
  • Sleep Deprivation and Cognitive Function: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2019 K S Lane

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