Post No.: 0051
Cramming is not optimal (although it’s better than nothing if you’ve left it all too late! If so, use what time you have left to test your knowledge, not just read material). Cramming creates an illusion that you’re learning effectively and rapidly. You may pass an exam but you’ll most probably forget the material a day or two later. An easy or great one-time performance doesn’t necessarily mean evidence of learning and cemented long-term retention.
Many things can temporarily make performance increase rapidly or make learning seem easy (e.g. cramming, constant/predictable conditions, continuous feedback, your paw was held all the way, short-term incentives (rewards or punishments), luck, caffeine or nootropics (‘cognitive enhancer’ drugs) that one at least psychologically feels dependent on using in order to feel like one can perform) but they don’t necessarily lead to long-term results. So short-term results don’t always translate into long-term results but they make us think they do. Current performance can therefore be a misleading indicator of long-term learning and retention – it can make us misinterpret whether we’ve actually acquired the skills and knowledge for the long-term.
So what is a better strategy? It’s far better to begin studying a few weeks before an exam and spacing or spreading the total study across time. For instance, five 1-hour segments of rehearsing spread across several days are better than one 5-hour segment done in one day, even though it’s the same total investment of time. If you study something twice then don’t just read the chapter again straightaway to see what you’ve missed – do something else, then come back to it again later (spacing or distributing your learning); or study something else, then come back to it later (interleaving subjects e.g. studying one subject, then another subject, then the first subject again, and so forth). Spacing your study opportunities out between a day to a week apart can double your later recall performance compared to cramming. This indeed all requires planning and organisation though. Woof!
For long-term retention, there’s no substitute for a lot of time rehearsing and spaced or distributed practice – the more often you come back to revise and practise retrieving from memory a piece of material, the longer you’ll retain it in memory. Rapid short-term cramming results in rapid forgetting; spacing and continuous long-term revision results in long-term remembering. If you don’t use a skill, you’ll lose that skill over time too – so you’ll likely lose an ability or even a recallable memory if you don’t do it or revisit it after a very long time.
And for optimal learning – pace learning with frequent breaks within sessions too (e.g. 25 minutes of intense focus followed by 5 minutes of getting up and walking, every 30 minutes). Experiment also with different levels of background noise (e.g. some people like to work with music, some don’t; or it might just depend on what type of work you’re doing and what music. This may be related to one’s level of extraversion?) When you take a break – physically get away from your desk during this time and don’t do any work related to the work you’ve just been doing. Try not to eat your meals at your desk, and try to have a completely separate room or place where you work and where you sleep if possible too.
Talk aloud what you’ve just learnt as if you’re trying to teach someone else what you’ve just learnt, and/or review the day’s lessons just before going to sleep. Try mind maps (schematic drawings of how your thoughts and ideas link together) – pen and paper and other tools in the environment and outside of the brain can essentially be used as extensions of our fluffy minds and thought processes. This is intuitive for children when they help themselves learn to count by looking at and counting their physical digits. (Because the external environment acts as an extension of the mind – pen and paper are not likely going to go out of fashion any day soon. An electronic screen (at least with current technologies) isn’t going to be able to do what multiple sheets of paper laid out to fill an entire desk or pinned to a wall can do to allow us to see the whole pictures more easily. An electronic screen can do many things, and can do some things paper cannot, but it cannot alone provide the same level of flexibility of manipulation, and therefore flexibility of thinking, as cheap/non-precious paper and other materials.)
Pacing and spacing are why Furrywisepuppy recommends that you only read one or two posts without a break at a maximum; although this is just a recommendation.