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How to Cram for a Test


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Long-term learning -- what you will remember after graduation -- requires reading, using, and thinking about the material over time. Inevitably, however, there will be a time when you need to learn course material quickly. If a test is looming it may be time for you to cram, to attempt to learn the material in a short period of time. Cramming leads to short term retention, but usually does not lead to long term recall. In other words, cramming may get you though an exam but will not help you remember the material years from now. If you must cram, do it well. Here's how.

Make Choices
You've got limited time. What's your deadline and how much time do you have to study? You will not be able to learn everything. Don't try to learn it all. Be strategic and choose what to read and study. Make a list of topics likely to be on the test. Prioritize the list based on importance. Consult another student to get another perspective of what's important. Consider:

  • What topics are covered?
  • How relevant is each topic?
  • What was covered in class?
  • What topics are mentioned most often in class readings?
  • What topics are covered in handouts, overheads, and outlines?

Be realistic in selecting material to study. Ruthlessly eliminate material that you deem less important. Prioritize your list based on your own knowledge. Don't spend time studying what you already know.

Set goals. What do you need to learn and how much time do you have? Is your goal realistic? Determine how much time you have and allocate time for each study topic. Also plan for breaks and for sleep. It may seem counter intuitive but you need to stop studying and rest in order for your brain to retain information. Research shows that sleep is critical for forming memories. If you want to remember what you've crammed, get some sleep.

Use Your Class Notes
Do you have class notes? If not talk with other students who might be generous enough to share, but remember that sharing goes both ways and be prepared to share your notes with them in the future (this means that you'll need to take notes!). The material the professor mentions in class is usually on the exam, so class notes are critical. Use class notes as a guide to what's important but supplement your notes with material from the class readings. Review the sections of the textbook mentioned in class. Compare your notes with the text and add any information you deem relevant.

Use Your Textbook
Ideally you would have read the textbook well before beginning cramming. If you have not, understand that reading the textbook is not a good way of studying because you'll be overwhelmed with irrelevant details. However, you cannot ignore the textbook. Instead you must read strategically. As you read, search for specific information. Read the chapter outline, introduction, and opening questions or objectives. As you read, seek to answer each question or discuss each objective. Pay attention to section summaries, questions, bold words, end-of-chapter summaries, and conclusions. Do not read it all. Instead, read to gather specific information discussed in your class notes and the chapter objectives, questions, and summaries.

Use Prior Assignments
What have you already been tested on? Analyze prior assignments to learn about the kinds of things that your professor targets and how he or she asks questions.

Take and Revise Notes
Review the readings and class notes and take notes. Don't write down everything. Emphasize the main points, theories, conclusions. Try to determine the specific information that is likely to be on the test. After you have a complete set of notes, revise them. Do not copy your notes. Some students believe that copying their notes will help them remember the material, but this is not true. Copying and recopying notes is inefficient because it is a superficial method of professing information. Instead think about the material, work to condense it, delete information that you already know. Creating several sets of increasingly concise notes can help you learn.

Explain the Material Repeatedly
Don't just repeat it over and over. Explain it in your own words.

Create and Answer Questions About the Material
Answer the questions that appear in your textbook. Identify possible questions. Construct answers for these questions and memorize them.

Get Sleep
Sleep is a must, even if you feel that you aren't done. Sleep to consolidate your memories. Then get up early, have breakfast, and review your materials again.

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