Friday, 28 October 2016

Revising for exams - why cramming the night before rarely works

Amy Reichelt
, RMIT University

In our five-part series, Making Sense of Exams, we’ll discuss the purpose of exams, whether they can be done online, overcoming exam anxiety, and effective revision techniques.

The date for an important exam is looming. You know you have to study for it. Suddenly, it’s the evening before the dreaded date, and you feel like you haven’t studied enough, if at all. It’s time to cram all the information you can into your brain.

We know that to do well in exams, you have to remember your material to then demonstrate your knowledge during the test. But is an intense night of study an effective way of learning?
Learning information that can then be recalled in an often stressful environment is taxing on the brain.

In the best situations we can forget things like our colleague’s names when trying to introduce them to someone.

In a high pressure situation our brains can easily perform sub-optimally.

How to remember information in the long term

In cognitive psychology, a discrimination can be drawn between deep and shallow processing of information. This is known as the Levels of Processing theory which was proposed by researchers in the 1970’s. They argued that “deep processing” led to better long-term memory than “shallow processing”.

Shallow processed information can be encoded by the brain based on the simple characteristics of the words, rather than the meaning. So the knowledge is only able to be stored in short-term memory stores, where it is only retained for a short period.

To process information deeply, the meaning and importance of the information is encoded. Relations between concepts are linked together in an elaborate manner, so more understanding of the information is able to be demonstrated.

Due to the more meaningful analysis of the material, stronger and more long lasting memories can be formed.

Taking the time to elaborate and assign meaning to information allows easier recall. However, this process takes time, and when an entire subject needs to be crammed into your memory in a short period of time, deep processing can’t be performed.

So cramming can work for a short-term recall of the information, but this information will rapidly be lost.

Re-reading notes is not enough

Re-reading through notes is often not enough to cement information into your memory.
Spider diagrams (above) or mind maps have been found to be more effective then conventional note taking for the retention of memory. from

A way of encoding information more deeply is to write diagrammatic notes. Spider diagrams, mind maps and concept maps are visual stimuli and are more easily remembered than a list of points or blocks of text.

Condensing information down into single word cues can then efficiently trigger the recall of large amounts of information.

Hand writing revision notes can also help you learn information more deeply and helps you to get into the practice of writing rapidly in an exam setting.

Typing on a computer can also increase distraction, as the temptation to procrastinate can increase.

A lack of sleep can affect your performance

Last minute revision is synonymous with a poor night’s sleep, if any sleep at all.

The dilemma presented is that you can either stay up and study to commit as much information to memory as possible, or forfeit a night’s sleep.

Sleep, however, is essential in forming enduring memories – and a lack of sleep is shown to be self defeating in terms of memory recall.

Scientists still do not fully understand why sleep is so important for brain function, but it is known that sleep is important in the consolidation of memory.

This is the process of forming an enduring memory from short-term stores into long-term memory.
Your brain goes through different stages of sleep. The deepest stage of sleep is known as Slow Wave Sleep and this period is proposed to be vital in the consolidation of memories.

The hippocampus is essential in the consolidation of memories, in particular in forming episodic memories, which requires linking the features of a memory together.

Studies have revealed in mice that the neurons in the hippocampus activated during learning a maze became active again during Slow Wave Sleep. The reactivation of neurons is proposed to strengthen the new connections.

So a good night’s sleep after learning new information is essential to forming memories. It’s beneficial to get sleep rather than staying awake and going into an exam without rest.

Procrastination can pile on the pressure

Despite the deadline of exams to study for, mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing, like rearranging a bookshelf, or cleaning your desk, instead of revising for an exam. The tasks we can occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are typically immediately rewarding but only have a short-term value.

The more important task of studying can lead to a bigger reward - passing the exam, however this reward is not immediate.

Humans tend to be motivated for small, immediate rewards. The value of passing a test certainly outweighs smaller, immediate rewards like playing video games; when the deadline approaches, the importance shifts. This usually leads to a long night of study before the exam.

It has been suggested procrastinators may be a certain personality type, in particular people who are thrill seekers.

Leaving an important task until the last minute increases adrenalin and stress hormones, and you can get a rewarding “rush” once its complete. The reinforces the idea that such people work better under pressure.

Familiar environment can prompt memory

Even if you arrive at the exam the morning after a long night of study, feeling sleep deprived and as if you haven’t learnt enough, all may not be lost.

Being in the exam hall at school, college or university can help you recall information. The familiar environment can increase performance as the stimuli around you can prompt memory.

For example, a science exam being taken in a science classroom can cue memories, these cues aren’t present in a strange environment such as taking an exam in a race course hall.

This is known as the environmental reinstatement effect, which occurs because the location you are in can act as a prompt for past memories.

Environmental cues can trigger memory recall, so something as simple as having your pencil case on your desk while studying and again during the exam could assist in prompting memories.

Tips for remembering information

  1. Hand write out your notes instead of typing
  2. Get a good night’s sleep before an exam
  3. Write a revision plan and start early
The Conversation
Amy Reichelt, Lecturer, ARC DECRA, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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I think the night before you should not cram too much. Instead you should take a break.

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