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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Study Smart: How to Make the Most of a Cram Session

It’s finals week, and you’re trying to make the most of your study time. You probably know by now that cramming isn’t the best way to learn (or live), but even the best students usually have to hustle at the end of the semester to prepare for a busy line-up of exams.

Before you hit the books, review these study secrets, which will maximize your cramming efforts and help you stay sane, too.

Plan Your Attack

At the beginning of any study session, review exactly what you need to accomplish and set your priorities. How much time do you have? What do you need to study? How and where will you work best? Taking a few minutes to devise a plan will keep you from feeling overwhelmed, plus make sure you won’t forget an essential task or prioritize inappropriately.

When I sit down for a study session, I make a list of the topics I need to review and how much time each will require. I then create a schedule with 30-minute time slots, which I fill first with the topics that are giving me the most trouble.

Review Readings

You won’t be able to re-read your assignments for the semester, but you should go over all of your reading notes. If you didn’t keep good reading notes, find book reviews or secondary sources with summaries of themes and important points.

Next, if you have time, read the introduction and conclusion of the articles or books you’ll be tested on. It can also be helpful to work with a classmate to review the most important passages and talk through the main arguments.

When I review readings, I rely on annotations that I made the first time I read to help me skim later. Obviously, annotating is something you have to do before you cram, so it may not help you this week. But, if you didn’t use an annotation method this semester, you should next semester. Careful annotation will help you identity key arguments and supporting points without having to reread the entire text. Here’s a short tutorial on one method for annotating a text.

Space Out Repetitions

If you have a lot of information you need to memorize, you’re probably planning to rely on repetition. It’s widely known that repetition aids memory, but what most of us don’t realize is that how we space those repetitions is important, too. We learn better when we space out study repetitions over time, rather than bunching them together.

What’s more, intervals—or leaving time in between repetitions—are not the most efficient use of study time. Instead, try interleaving. Leave one subject of study, review another, and then come back. You’ll find the best results if you block your study repetitions in a randomized order. For example, if you have three subjects to review, start with the first, then move on to the third, back to the first, on to the second, back to the third, then second. Try not to repeat the pattern so that your brain has to guess what comes next.

Study in a Similar Context

Have you ever walked into a familiar room and had an old memory pop up? That happens because contextual information—sights, sounds, smells, and feelings—can affect our ability to recall. In other words, our surroundings often cue memories.

I like to study in a library or an empty lecture hall since the temperature, sounds, and smells are similar to the exam setting. I begin by taking five minutes to sit quietly and clear my head in order to get into an exam-like state of focus before studying.

Don’t Skip on Sleep

Studying is the key to testing success, but what many students fail to appreciate is that sleep is also essential. Sleep deprivation hinders your ability to perform complex cognitive tasks, so, sacrificing a few hours sleep for extra cramming time can actually be counterproductive.

Even if it means less time spent with your material, make sure you sleep well the night before an exam. Stay away from caffeine, limit naps to 30 minutes, and turn of your mobile devices.


What other study strategies work for you? Tell us your tips!

Photo of student studying courtesy of Shutterstock.