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Top 5 reasons NOT to cram for finals (and tips on HOW to study)

With many Engaging Minds students studying for final exams, our office has been abuzz with study planning, organizing, and calendaring. We always encourage gradual, incremental studying, but unfortunately many students still rely heavily on cramming in the final days and hours before their toughest exams of the year. With students’ best interests in mind, this blog is devoted to all the reasons NOT to study at the last minute.

  1. When cramming, students trade hours of sleep for extra hours of studying: Every high-schooler has done it. When a deadline approaches, and time is running out, your child will be tempted to reach for a caffeinated beverage and pull an all-nighter to get the work done in time. However, research from UCLA has found that studying completed under sleep-deprived conditions not only results in lower grades than well-rested classmates, but also prevents the learned concepts from transferring to long-term memory. UCLA professor Andrew Fuligni and colleagues report that “sacrificing sleep for extra study time, whether it's cramming for a test or plowing through a pile of homework, is actually counterproductive. Regardless of how much a student generally studies each day, if that student sacrifices sleep time in order to study more than usual, he or she is likely to have more academic problems, not less, on the following day.”
  2. The stress of “last minute” studying weakens cognitive performance: Executive function skills (and most other academic skills sets, for that matter), function at optimal levels when students are free of stress, have sufficient time to work at their own speed, and feel supported by consistency and practice. All of those factors, which aid student performance, are removed in a “night before” study scenario. Megan Zhang, of the NYU Neuroscience and Education Lab, explains that “Some children may have highly impaired executive functions (cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and planning) when placed in stress-arousing environments,” and, when attempting to study a year’s worth of content in an evening, your child is most certainly under stress. Specifically, “very low and very high levels of arousal or stress can both impair executive functions, while a moderate level of arousal can actually improve them.” When your child studies over time, the moderate stress of meeting small study goals, or anticipating the exam day ahead, can be helpful. Meanwhile, the extreme stress put on the mind and body to learn vast quantities of material with minimal time and support can be detrimental.
  3. There is simply not enough time to cover all the content effectively: End-of-the-year exams generally require students to know concepts from at least the second semester if not the whole year. With months and months of content to review and master, students cannot get the job done right without enough hours. At Engaging Minds, we often begin setting up finals study calendar about a month in advance, so that students can spend an hour or two on each unit they are responsible for over the course of many days and weeks. This way, when their exams ultimately arrive, they can spend the night before brushing up on any tougher concepts, and conducting an overall review, rather than learning (or re-learning) material for the first time.  
  4. Rushing causes careless mistakes and oversights: One of the key executive function skills Engaging Minds instructors practice with students is “self-monitoring,” which includes the ability to monitor one’s own pacing, detail management, and progress. When your child is pressed for time, he may not self-monitor at all! As a result, he could cut corners that should NOT be cut, and make careless errors he never takes time to correct. For example, he might just “look over his notes,” instead of practicing an active study strategy, like quizzing himself with flashcards. Or he could skip over the “check” phase of TOSC, misunderstand his study guide, incorrectly memorize material, or even forget to study certain chapters all together. Moving through material in a short time frame also requires students to process information at a faster pace than, perhaps, they are able to manage successfully. Your child may not remember much of what he saw while speed-reading through many months of notes.
  5. Cramming rarely results in long-term retention of material, meaning that future courses, which build on past concepts, will be more difficult: Cramming is certainly better than nothing, and can be initially successful, garnering the grade your child is looking for on their exam. But how long will he remember the unit afterward? A few days? A week? Eventually, the information that he crammed into his brain at the last minute will fade from memory, and your child will be left with little preparation for the future and few strong study habits. One of the most startling effects of cramming is that, when it “works” for your child, it contributes to the growing academic culture that does “just enough to get by.” However, the most successful students are those who build grit, who can put forth effort over sustained periods of time to attain mastery, not a temporary fix.

There are hundreds of reasons why cramming is NOT the most effective strategy for your child. The strongest case against last minute studying is that it doesn’t allow your child to put his best foot forward, now or later. This finals season, encourage your child to take his time, plan wisely, practice follow-through, and employ the toolbox of skills he takes home each week from his Engaging Minds sessions. When his exams are over, and his grades reflect his effort, he will not only enjoy the rewards of his hard work, but also be prepared for future learning.

More "Finals" Tips:

Engaging Minds Boston Learning and Tutoring Center
188 Needham Street • Suite 215 • Newton, MA 02464
141 Boston Post Road • Wayland, MA 01778
Tel: 617-964-3100 •

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