Virtually all of us have done it: furiously cram for a test or some other high-stakes event very shortly before it’s slated to start. And you can bet to varying degrees that the respective presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are working day and night to prepare their candidates for Monday’s debate, and the two debates after that. Reportedly, Clinton and Trump are getting ready for their face-off in very different ways.
But what does research say about the best way to prepare for tests, or debates, or what have you? Is cramming smart?
1) First, here’s a 2011 article for the American Psychological Association by Lea Winerman. In “Study Smart,” she acknowledges that, in particular, those who’ve achieved success in higher education think that by default they know how best to study for high-stakes events. Here are three of Winerman’s principles to guide preparation:
“Space Your Study Sessions.” While it’s tempting to slack off and then cram for two days before a test, Winerman says that not only are you better off leaving time between your study sessions—the more time you leave between those sessions the better.
“In other words, if you have 12 hours to spend on a subject, it’s better to study it for three hours each week for four weeks than to cram all 12 hours into week four,” Winerman writes.
“Interweave Your Subjects.” Winerman cites a 2008 study showing that students who mixed up studies of paintings with random mathematical tasks better identified those paintings later than those who did not perform the math tasks. (Winerman acknowledges, however, that this sort of “interweaving” can be tough for teachers to pull off.)
“Why does mixing up subject matter help students learn? Again, as in spacing, the key may be in the learning, forgetting, and relearning that helps the brain cement the new information for the long-term,” she writes.
"[S]tudents might not enjoy taking a quiz at the end of every class or testing themselves every time they finish reading a chapter, but doing so would probably help them remember the material on the final exam.”
2) A short 2008 piece, also in the American Psychological Association, cites a study that comes to the same conclusion as Winerman’s “test yourself” suggestion. A group of students who were repeatedly tested on Swahili-English word pairings performed far better in a subsequent exam than those who had words they defined correctly dropped from their subsequent study sheets and exams.
3) Whether it’s testing or some other form of studious “drudgery,” Benedict Carey has a word of advice for Clinton, Trump, and everyone facing a big test: Ease up, and take a break.
Carey, a New York Times writer and reporter on medical and science issues, wrote this on the brain as a “learning machine” in 2014 for Education Week Commentary:
The brain as a biological organ has not adapted to institutional education, at least not entirely. For as much as we learn in class, the old-school advice on studying—keep to a ritual, avoid all distractions, find a quiet study space, hole up with the books—is severely limiting. The brain is a quirky learning machine, the science shows, and it works best when those quirks are exploited.
Compared to initiatives stressing new evaluations, curriculum overhauls, and teacher training, this emphasis on brain science offers, Carey writes, “something at once humbler and grander: small techniques that can be deployed right away—today, now—and have outsized effects.”
And even extraordinary feats of memorization are not necessarily signs of a superhuman brain, nor is forgetting by definition a bumbling act or a sign of personal failings, Carey says. In fact, in his book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Carey says the latter can be the brain hard at work over the long term.
He calls this the “Forget to Learn” theory. Carey goes on to say that “forgetting a huge chunk of what we’ve learned, especially when it’s a brand-new topic, is not necessarily evidence of laziness, attention deficits, or a faulty character. On the contrary, it is a sign that the brain is working as it should.”
That may be true. But if, on the debate stage Monday night, Clinton forgets what the Common Core State Standards are, or if Trump draws a blank on how to define a charter school, Carey’s words might be pretty cold comfort.
Education Week Librarian Holly Peele and Library Intern Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this blog post.
Follow us on Twitter at @PoliticsK12.