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Cramming: studying by the seat of your pants

Late night cramming session

At university my life consisted of afternoon drinking, the occasional lecture and feverishly studying, having only cracked open the textbook a couple of days before the exam. Ah, that blissful blend of blind, heart stopping terror and mild alcohol poisoning; fond memories indeed.

As a responsible adult I’ve left those glorious days behind and embraced more civilised behaviour. I eat vegetables, plan ahead and change my underwear on a semi-regular basis. I wouldn’t dream of leaving revision until the last minute.

But somewhere, buried deep in my psyche, there’s still a part of me with a thirst for budget lager and it makes me wonder – could I give myself a fighting chance at a passing grade with only a few days of cramming?

Time to wheel out the big guns.

This exceptionally powerful technique is from a video by the Long Beach City College, I’ve tweaked it slightly to make it a little more potent. They have a series of fantastic study skills videos on YouTube which you can subscribe to and I highly recommend.

The basic idea is to create your own quizzes from the chapter summaries of your textbook. If you can master the material on those pages you’ll have a sound working knowledge of the subject because they should cover all the key points. By turning it into a quiz you can leverage self testing, which radically accelerates memorisation and allows you to assess your progress at the same time.

You create the quizzes by photocopying the summaries at the end of each chapter then using correction fluid or tape to create cloze deletions, or what we would call ‘fill in the blanks’.

Typically you would obscure one important word in each sentence. If you cover up too many words it becomes impossible to complete and if you cover up simple words it becomes too easy. For example:

The process that plants use to create energy from the sun is called ___________. (good)

The process that _____ use to create ______ from the ___ is called ___________. (too damn hard)

The process ____ plants use to create energy from the sun __ called photosynthesis. (absolutely pointless)

Blank out the words on the photocopies of the summaries so that the original in the textbook is untouched. This is important as you’ll need it to check your answers later on.

Now that you’ve made your quizzes, photocopy them so that you have about five copies of each one.

Great, now you’re ready to start studying. The first time you try to fill in the answers, you won’t have a clue. That’s to be expected, but I don’t want you to guess. Instead I want you to use a training wheels approach. Without looking at the summary itself, use the textbook to try and fill in appropriate answers. Use a pencil, so that you can make corrections if you need to.

When you’re done, check your answers against the original summary. For anything that you’ve answered incorrectly, revisit the textbook material and try to work out where you went wrong and what you misunderstood.

The training wheels approach:

  • Use the textbook to help without referring directly to the answers

  • Review the actual answers

  • Analyse any mistakes

This achieves two things: it encourages you to interact with the material improving your comprehension as well as your memory and it makes the process much less intimidating.

From then onwards, use the quiz as you would expect. Rely on your memory to fill in the gaps and mark yourself using the original chapter summary. If you write your score on the top of the sheet along with the number of your attempt, you’ll be able to track your progress as you improve.

Erase any wrong answers (which is why we’re using pencil), then leave it alone for twenty minutes and study something else. When you return to it, repeat the training wheels approach on the gaps. The twenty minute break is necessary because the answers will still be fresh in your mind from marking the quiz. Instead of digging into the material to uncover the answers you’ll just parrot them, which defeats the purpose.

This is a very fast way to build up a working knowledge of a subject and it’s weighted so that you spend more time engaged with difficult content, but it has limitations. Whilst the end of chapter summaries are likely to cover the main points for that topic, that’s not the same as covering all the points. Any attempt to summarise material is bound to leave out some information and, with only a few days to cram, you won’t have time to paper over those cracks. So, although this method could get you a passing grade, it works best as a way to kick start your studying.

Even with great technique, cramming is a risky strategy. If you encounter a topic that you just can’t seem to make sense of, there’s no time for you to get help. If that topic happens to be a foundational principle of the subject, you won’t be able to move past it and you’ll be stuck. This is the price you pay for spending late nights being doing flaming shots in rundown nightclubs instead of revising in a more methodical fashion.

Damn you Sambuca. Damn you.

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