Preparing for an exam is a stressful process. You might find yourself asking questions like am I using my time wisely? Is this the right thing to do? and what should I be doing differently? Finding straight answers to these questions can be difficult. Misconceptions about effective study habits are common, and they can lead us astray (Bjork, et al., 2012). On the other hand, sometimes you know your approach isn’t ideal. Who hasn’t found themselves cramming the night (or even 5 minutes) before an exam? In writing this post, I hope to equip you with the knowledge you need to navigate your way through these kinds of pitfalls and find a learning path that is as fulfilling as it is effective.
Cramming and Spacing
The spacing effect is a long-established finding in cognitive science. Adding a delay between study sessions causes the studied material to be retained for much longer than material practised back-to-back with no delay. Doing this unsurprisingly delays your studying outcomes – it will take much longer to learn the same amount of material that you’d learn in one continuous session. This can often give the impression that cramming is a better use of your time – and when studying for short term retention, it is! However, if you have the time to space things out, and if you expect long-term retention of the material, you should not rely solely on cramming (Roediger & Pyc, 2012). To be maximally efficient in your use of the spacing effect, you can fill the spaces with a different type of material. This is called interleaving and it does not remove the spacing effect – in fact, it has its own benefits! By regularly switching up your material, you train yourself to more easily distinguish between different types of problems to solve, and to deploy the right method for the moment.
Time Management and Procrastination
Preparing for exams with plenty of time to benefit from the spacing effect is ideal, but it is all too easy to run out of time. Fail to avoid the pitfall of procrastination and you will be forced to face the pitfall of cramming. Procrastination is a complicated topic, one that has been well discussed by Steel, 2007. His breakdown of task delay was particularly insightful for me. Tasks that are a long time away are less relevant for immediate behaviour. The more unpleasant a task seems, the easier it is to avoid it by delaying, and delaying, and delaying. In doing so, you decrease its relevance and thereby create a false comfort in the present moment, even if you know better. A simple trick that you’ve surely heard a million times before is to break tasks down into smaller, less unpleasant chunks. In doing so, they become less easy to delay. With less delay, these smaller tasks become more relevant for immediate behaviour, allowing for effective prioritisation. When combined with the spacing effect, this approach can lead to the development of consistent and sustainable study habits. The trick is maintaining this consistency.
Embracing Feedback and Resilience
It can be difficult to remain consistent in your study habits when your study results are inconsistent. Mistakes are discouraging. Nonetheless, they are an essential component of learning, and it’s crucial to see them as part of the process instead of setbacks. Even more importantly, it’s important to see them in the first place. Continuously reviewing your work, getting feedback from others and using metacognitive strategies can all help you detect errors. Hattie & Timperley (2007) sort the process into three stages: Feed-up, where learning goals are established and clarified; Feed-back, where learners reflect on their work in relation to the set goals and establish their level of competence; and Feed-forward, where this information is deployed to adapt the learning process to their levels of competence. Feedback is not just about evaluating past performance but also about guiding future learning and establishing clear objectives. Making a series of mistakes can be disorienting, but a clear-eyed view of the next steps can bolster your resolve. And when the next mistake comes – and it will – having a strategy to learn from it and control your reaction to it can give you the resilience to persevere on to the next mistake, and the one after that. As long as you’re making mistakes, you’re in a place where you can improve: Exactly where you want to be.
Your study environment should also be somewhere that you want to be. As discussed earlier, the more unpleasant a task is, the easier it is to delay. By making your study environment pleasant you make it harder to procrastinate and easier to stay engaged. Chi & Wylie (2014) present a framework of four modes of cognitive engagement, ICAP: Interactive Mode, Constructive Mode, Active Mode and Passive Mode. They advocate for study spaces that foster more interactive modes of engagement, in which discussions can promote deeper understanding by providing new perspectives. It’s important to remember that the people around you are a part of your environment and can be an incredible resource. In other contexts, Chi & Wylie advocate for engaging constructively – generating new information and ideas – can also promote deeper learning. In these situations, other people can be distracting. Different environments can help or hinder engagement with the material, so before deciding where you want to study, decide how you want to study. This decision is going to be very context-dependent, so think well about it. What are you trying to achieve?
It is all too easy to stumble into a pitfall when studying – it’s a stressful thing to do, and that very stress can blind us to other pitfalls. As you’ve learned, they can cascade into each other. A miserable study environment can lead to procrastination, which can lead to cramming and weaker test performance – and if you don’t look back and see where you went wrong, that’s a pitfall within itself! You’ve got to be careful, self-aware and to put in consistent effort. I hope you’ve learned something in this post, and I hope you apply it. Ultimately, I hope that you’ll take these strategies to heart and use them to find a fulfilling path of learning and self-discovery.
“Effective learning can be fun, it can be rewarding, and it can save time, but it is seldom easy” – Bjork, et al., 2012