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Is it too late to cram for that big exam?

21 May 09 10:05 GMT
By John Hand
BBC News

It's exam season and diligent students have been busy swotting up for weeks. But what about those who squeeze all their revision into the final few days - can cramming ever be a substitute for hard graft?

This is a guilty admission at a time when thousands of students are toiling their way through revision plans ahead of make-or-break exams - I am one of life's crammers.

Two decades after my A-levels, I am entering the exam hall again next month and old habits are dying hard.

I am sitting A-level Italian and, as usual, prevarication is top of my agenda - slightly ahead of panic - just three weeks ahead of the final written exams.

The first of the papers will test me on my knowledge of two Italian novels and a film adaptation - which so far remain unread and unwatched.

Three days later come two further papers which will challenge me to understand spoken Italian, translate a passage from English and write a couple of essays from scratch.

So I have a dilemma: do I schedule an hour of solid revision every day between now and the moment I hear those unnverving words "You may now turn over your papers"?

Or do I resign myself to a final 48-hour frenzy of focused fact-familiarisation in the second week of June?

Of course, every revision guide advises a carefully timetabled study plan over several weeks or months, and that is clearly sensible for anyone out there banking on straight A-grades to earn a prized university place.

But my situation is different. I have a full-time job and other commitments which don't easily accommodate a spare hour each evening. And, to be honest, I have nothing to lose.

So is there ever a time when cramming works?

Call the doctor

I'm feeling a little more confident after two Italian oral exams I took last week. I finally settled on my discussion subjects with 48 hours to go, then threw myself headlong into study.

Add in some mnemonic memory techniques and I think I recalled enough when I faced my examiner.

In my mind, the quicker I focused on what I needed to know, the less time I would have to forget it.

I've heard all the warnings that it is pointless trying to learn anything too close to an exam. But there is plenty of research pointing out that this is a reckless way to approach exams.

Ofqual - the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator - has an exams doctor who helpfully answers e-mail queries from worried exam candidates.

And George Turnbull's advice is simple and unequivocal: "Do not cram the night before an exam."

He also suggests students who plan long four-hour study slogs to soak up knowledge are only fooling themselves. Such marathon efforts result in "only 10 minutes' actual work [being] done".

"Start with the 10 minutes you know you will do. Then have a 10-minute break and start again."

After a while, he advises, you can increase the amount of time worked between breaks. After a period of five days of increasing study, you'll have earned an evening out.

The anti-cramming message is hammered home by the findings of a survey that suggests 40% of successful British students would fail their exams if they re-sat them a year later.

Research by the Chartered Institute of Education Assessors (CIEA) found 32% admitted to having used short-term cramming techniques to get through their exams and that this approach is increasing, with 48% of respondents under 24 employing the method.

Graham Herbert, deputy head of the CIEA, said he feared the findings were symptomatic of a test-laden education system, which, he said, was creating a nation of crammers.

And he warned me: "For some people it could work, just to get them through the exam. But to really improve your understanding of a subject, I would say that cramming is not the way to do it.

"It's evident from the study that the education system is forcing students to memorise facts without gaining long-term knowledge or in-depth understanding of their course material."

Even as an adult learner, I have sensed the pressure that my tutors are under to ensure good results - by how early they start focusing on how we can pass the end-of-course exam.

Memory tips

I figure that if there is one person I could count on to be in my corner in the cramming debate, it is Dominic O'Brien, an eight-time winner of the world memory championships who now co-ordinates the schools memory championships and runs mind coaching clinics.

But Mr O'Brien, whose books include How To Pass Exams, cautioned me that I really need to change my approach to ensure the best combination of knowledge and memory.

He said: "The key to remembering information is the five-times principle. Read the information and try to commit it to memory immediately, then review it 24 hours later. Read and memorise it again a week later, then again after a month. When you come to review it a fifth time after three to six months, it should stay in your long-term memory."

Unless I reschedule my exams for Christmas, I simply don't have that option but Mr O'Brien has a hothouse alternative. When he enters competitions in which he has to recall a 2,000-digit number inside an hour, he commits them to memory as 10 200-digit numbers then reviews each one after five minutes, 15 minutes and so on.

So it gives me a little hope that my mantra "it's never too late too learn" may yet pay off, even if I would advise against it for anyone whose future hangs on their results.

Just remember I'll be the one with the "Do Not Disturb" signs up in mid-June.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm 18 and in the final stages of A-level education and believe me I know that cramming definitely is one of the most productive techniques to revising - it secures your grade. The suggestion of '10 mins sprees' is so impractical and unrealistic, how is anyone who is meant to be doing an advanced course on a subject going to get any decent revisional depth out of that time, having to refocus and revisit from where they left off after a 10 min break.
J Taft, Bromsgrove

The key with preparing for exams is to use a method which you know works for YOU. By the time you get to "A" levels you should know if last minute cramming is effective or is counterproductive. For me, last minute, adrenalin-driven, quality cramming on the day/night before an exam wasn't just useful, it was absolutely crucial - I would never have got to university, let alone got a degree, otherwise.
Sabremesh, Poole

Cramming is certainly not the best way to improve your understanding of a subject. But it can be a good way to pass exams if you have a good memory and wish to do as little work as possible. I have top class GCSEs and A levels plus a 2:1 from Cambridge and I crammed for every one of my exams. Do I now, ten years later, still have as good an understanding of my subjects as a conscientious student? Probably not. But I achieved what I wanted, which was excellent paper qualifications.
Caroline, London, UK

Cramming isnt my style and has never been. I prefer daily or weekly studies right from the 3rd lesson , study regularly and then up my game as soon as the time table is out. The last week to the exam I then go full throttle. For me its less stressful The few times i have crammed i found out that i forgot everything right after the exam and felt empty.
Gillian, Lagos, Nigeria

Regrettably, my revision 'technique' solely consisted of cramming as much information in as possible. It was not due to laziness, or time-commitments, but to a certain lack of self-belief when it came to tackling scribbled lecture notes. So much tension would build up about forth-coming exams leading to a mental block until the day or two before. A few energy drinks and a two-day stint in the library ensued.
Suzanne Bashir, Liverpool UK

Studying in a british university and comparing it with the american style universities in which my friends study, I can confidently say that the cramming is solely due to the way in which the British education system works. At University most courses are 100%-80% assessed in a final exam in June. That leaves no incentive for a normal-not-so-geeky student to start revising six months earlier. If only students were continually assessed with regular assessments contributing to their whole grade (as in the US), this cramming culture would disappear. People would study the whole year round and actually understand and learn rather than cram for the sake of just getting through the exam.
Maham Farhat, Coventry

If you rely on last minute revision, it shows a lack of focus and dedication towards your end result. If you want the highest grades, the frame of mind is needed, and no last minute cramming will gain this.
Alexander Mussard, Croydon

It is not just revision that is crammed into a few days or hours, people do the same for coursework as well - I am in the process of writing an essay in two days. It will get done, but how good it is remains to be seen!
Kim, Cardiff

All I can say after reading this is thank god I came across it, it provided a good 5 minutes of distraction away from revision for my exam tomorrow. Later I'll email it to my friends and it will again add to my procrastination, we are definitely a nation of crammers.
David, Belfast

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