Getting Beyond Cramming for Exams

One afternoon last semester as I prepared to leave my office, I went through the ritual: with one hand I switched off the computer on my desk while with the other I picked up the telephone receiver to check my voice mail one last time. I was only mildly surprised to hear two new messages from frantic students.

"Can I please take the make-up exam tomorrow?" asked a senior in my cognitive psychology class. "Dr. Wheeler, I lost my study guide!" exclaimed a sophomore in statistics.

I decided to return their calls later in the evening. I had already stuffed my bag with the books and papers I would need for working at home after dinner.

It was late and I was tired after a long day explaining the concept of sampling distributions to my restless statistics classes. Their questions were still reverberating in my head.

"Does the size of the sample really matter?" "Are all sampling distributions the same?" "Will this be on the exam?"

It was this last question that upset me. I saw it as a loaded question because I knew that behind it lay the fact that my students hadn't been keeping up with their regular studying. They were going to cram for the final exam.

End of semester. Everyone was looking forward to summer internships, beach jobs, or as some students say, "just chillin." My students were so anxious and distracted during lectures, when a few weeks ago they were animated by interest.

The refrain, "Is this going to be on the exam?" rattled me as a college teacher, just as cries of, "Are we there, yet?" assault the sensibilities of patient parents on long car trips with bored children.

I do well remember my student days. I commiserate with their end-of-semester panic by sharing with them my own experiences as a college student stressed out about grades.

Who could forget those all-nighters spent writing a term paper or completing a lab assignment? Although I counsel my students about the wastefulness of procrastinating on their assignments, I also share with them that I did the same thing more than once when I was a student.

I am always conflicted at this point. Cramming sometimes works, I did it; yet I tell my students not to. During an office visit one student plopped down in a chair and sighed, "I stayed awake all night to study for your exam!" It worked for her; she earned a solid B+, a significant improvement over the C- she made on the previous exam. I was satisfied that she improved her grade, but I was disturbed by the cramming.

All the research on memory shows that continued study over time (called "distributed practice" in the academic literature) leads to more learning than cramming ("massed practice").

With each cycle of beginning-of-semester-excitement, midterm doldrums, and end-of-semester panic, I face a personal challenge to help my students succeed.

When former students rush into my office needing advice on statistics problems assigned to them by their current professors, or others oversleep and stumble late to class; when they ask, "Will this be on the exam?", I tell them gently to calm down and to focus. I remind them that with careful organization and regular study they will survive the panic. Then I reach over to my stack of journal articles and hand them a copy of the scientific study so they can check out the research themselves.

* Evangeline Wheeler is an assistant professor of psychology at Towson University in Towson, Md.

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