The long-term consequences of cramming for tests

A dictionary definition of cramming would be something like this: “trying to quickly force material in a container that cannot hold it.” This definition just about sums up the disastrous “learning” technique that so many students have adopted in recent years. For many, it is the normal way of studying. It’s a habit that will produce dire consequences in college.

Cramming is not learning
Cramming produces short-term knowledge, like remembering what to pick up at the grocery store. People can remember to pick up a gallon of milk and a jar of peanut butter just long enough to get the job done. In the same way, students remember a chunk of knowledge long enough to get through a test. Then they forget the knowledge as the course moves onto the next chapter.

Unfortunately, good crammers frequently get high grades. These grades confirm in the students’ minds that cramming works. And for these students, it’s an easy next step for them to believe that they are learning. They’re not. Here’s the difference.

Learning is understanding and retaining specific knowledge that can be recalled later. This learned information will be combined with already-learned information and later on, with information learned in the future. That is exactly how learning should work: combining what you learn now with past and future knowledge.

As students move from one year of school to the next, or from one level to the next (like high school to college), teachers trust that the knowledge students carry with them from one point to the next is as permanent as it can be. But it does not seem to be happening these days.

Causes of cramming
Why has “cramming” become the norm? Why is it almost an epidemic? Two major reasons.

First, students are studying fewer hours than ever. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that high school seniors spend more than 40 hours each week (apart from being at school) watching television, using cell phones, surfing the Internet, and playing computer games. When these same students participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, they have very little time left for studying. (Look at how you spend your days. Is this true? )

How much time do college-bound high school seniors study? Research found that 66% studied, at most, five hours per week. It’s little wonder that these students run into a wall as college freshmen who are expected to study at least 30 hours a week to manage a typical course load of 15 credits.

The second reason is a little more complex. Students don’t think long-term. Educators believe that knowledge should increase with every subject a student takes and with every year of school. Students, however, are only trying to get through the moment: tomorrow’s test. Therefore, cramming “works.” They believe it works because they use grades as the measure of their success. They’re getting good grades on their tests; therefore, they must be learning.

However, with short-term learning — remembering information just long enough to get through the test — the information is gone in a few weeks. Students are not adding to a body of knowledge.

For students who want to succeed in college, learning has to mean more. It’s climbing a learning ladder. Students stand on a rung, their past knowledge, and step up to the next rung, their current knowledge, which they incorporate into the “ladder.” Knowledge accumulates as students climb. But crammers are always stuck with one foot on the bottom rung and the other on the ground. They’re not really on the ladder because they don’t accumulate — or hold onto —past knowledge. The short-term knowledge they “learned” for tests continues to disappear.

Long-term consequences
When college freshmen leave for campus, they take with them their highly developed cramming skills. Not only will cramming fail them in college, cramming has already undermined their chances to succeed because it has emptied their knowledge bank.

They have not “stored” the knowledge that their college professors expect them to bring to college courses. These courses begin and expect that students have a rich bank of knowledge. Their good (even excellent) high school grades prove they know the material, right? But for crammers, the knowledge bank isn’t there. The courses move fast and get away from them.

The knowledge bank aside, for a moment, why doesn’t cramming work in college? In most courses, there are only a few tests, and these tests cover large amounts of material. There’s too much to be crammed. And because crammers are procrastinators, there’s too much information to be crammed in too little time.

That’s where those dismal numbers we’ve talked about before in this blog come from. Because students lack knowledge and mature learning skills when they arrive at college, 25% of college freshmen do not return to the college in which they have enrolled, and only about 35% of college students finish college in the traditional four years.

Want to make a very practical case for kicking the cramming habit? Cramming costs parents lots of money in extra semesters:

• as students drop classes to avoid poor grades, or
• because they are overwhelmed and cannot manage the work, or
• because they must change majors that they have discovered are “too difficult.”

Just think about it. Cramming is very expensive.

In my book, Are you really ready for college? A College Dean’s 12 Secrets of Success — what high school students don’t know, I give students and parents strategies to overcome cramming and build and expand long-term knowledge. Follow the strategies to succeed.

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