Why Cramming Doesn't Work
Most college instructors probably are not about to start giving the daily quizzes that some researchers recommend to improve learning, so students might want to try testing themselves when they study on their own. But there's a catch: When people study with flashcards, by far the most common method of self-quizzing, they're notoriously bad at judging when they have mastered the material. Immediately after looking at a flashcard, the item "feels" very accessible because it's sitting in short-term memory but that's not necessarily an accurate gauge of whether you will remember it a week from now, says a Purdue University instructor, adding that to implant facts in long-term memory, it's best to receive feedback on a quiz after a short delay of 5 to 20 minutes, unlike flashcards which, as generally used, give immediate feedback. Similar results were demonstrated in an experiment presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, where people were asked to study 20 word pairs on flashcards during a one-hour period. Half the participants reviewed the full cycle of 20 cards eight times. The other half broke up the pile into small stacks, studying five cards at a time, reviewing them eight times, then moving on to the next small stack. The people who repeatedly studied the full cycle of cards had an average exam score of 80 percent, while the "small stack" participants scored only 54 percent. This is just the latest piece of evidence, says one of the experiment presenters, that cramming does not work. When an unfamiliar fact is studied again and again in immediate succession, it feels better embedded in your memory than it actually is. It is much better to create an interval between the times you study an item. But cycling through a large stack of flashcards, like many other effective study methods, is more frustrating than the less-effective techniques people usually use. Ultimately, it may be a balancing act between studying effectively and studying at all.