3 Essential Tips for Cramming Effectively Before an Exam
Imagine you've got seven days to go before an exam. You're behind in class, you haven't been learning properly or effectively, and then suddenly you're set with a lot of productivity guilt and you just can't focus to get that work done.
When I was in school, I did literally no work for exams until the very last minute.
As the exam looms, panic sets in and you need to cram everything into the last few days before your exam or you're going to fail.
Now I've been there and we've all been there, and while I don't condone cramming as an effective study technique, in fact all the evidence says it's one of the worst ways to learn possible, sometimes life gets in the way and you need to do a lot of focused learning in a short space of time.
Luckily I'm one of the masters of cramming for exams at the last minute and so in today's video I'm going to share with you some of my most effective evidence-based techniques for learning effectively in a very short space of time so that so that you can pass that exam and take out the stress from any last minute revision. So hit that subscribe button and let's get into it.
The Dangers of Cramming
Cramming is not a good way to learn deeply. It only puts information into your short-term memory, instead of helping you develop a thorough understanding of the subject. Exams test your ability to apply knowledge, not just memorize facts. Most exams require you to use your knowledge to solve problems, rather than just recall information. For example, in medicine, exams usually present case studies where you need to apply your knowledge to make the best decisions for patients. When I was in medical school, I failed my first cardiology exam because I tried to cram everything the night before. I learned that this approach doesn't work, and now I want to share my three key steps for effective exam preparation.
The Best Study Technique
If you have limited time to study for an exam, it's important to use the most effective techniques. Many students waste time by simply re-reading their notes or highlighting information. However, this is not an effective way to learn. Instead, you should use techniques like active recall and practice with past paper questions that simulate the exam you'll be taking. The top 1% of students use active recall questions to reinforce their learning and practice in the same format as the exam. This is important because a lot of learning involves pattern recognition. By recognizing patterns in how questions are asked or how knowledge is applied, you can increase your chances of doing well on the exam. However, if you have a very short amount of time, it may be difficult to cover the entire syllabus using active recall questions. In this case, you should consider tip number two.
The 80/20 Rule
So my next tip for cramming in a really short space of time and passing your exams is all about realizing that cramming is going to be a bit of a trade-off.
You're going to have to focus on the high yield topics and take the big step of leaving some things out. If you think about the last time you revised for any exam, you'll know that around 80 to 90% of all the knowledge that you learned for that exam actually isn't tested and doesn't come up. And this can be really, really frustrating. For example, when I had to revise my trauma and orthopaedic specialty training interviews, I ended up revising way, way, way too much orthopaedic knowledge for the short five-minute clinical interview where I got grilled on my clinical knowledge.
I ended up revising things to a very, very intricate and deep level, and I knew loads and loads of facts and knowledge and application of that knowledge around trauma and orthopaedic surgery. But I was only really asked about three clinical scenarios and how I would manage those. This was pretty frustrating, but it's also a great example of why revising the most high yield topics is the most effective way to learn in a short space of time. If you can get hold of past papers or speak to people who've been through the exam that you've sat already, you can find out what comes up most often. Equally, if you dive into the syllabus, it might just show you what's going to be tested and how frequently and in what way. This allows you to then focus your exam preparation. The 80-20 rule of anything dictates of 20% of your input gives 80% of your output. And what this means is that if you can focus your preparation around things that come up most frequently using evidence-based techniques like active recall, you're going to be revising most efficiently in that limited time that you have. Now, the problem that most people have here is that people tend to revise in a comfortable ABCDE manner. They'll go through any particular chapter of a book and they'll read it from chapter one to chapter 10 in that specific order, regardless of what's high yield and regardless of what comes up most frequently at the exam. This is because we're taught to read in a logical, alphabetical or numerical way in order to cover all the information. We're not taught to jump around textbooks or jump around topics and focus down on the things that are most important. When we start worrying in the run up to exams, our brains get super specific, overthinking about every possible thing that we could be tested on. And we think that we need to read every single sentence of every single textbook because those things might come up in the exam. And this is absolutely not true. Remember, the exams test your application of knowledge for the most part. And what you need to pick out are the things that are likely going to be tested rather than trying to read and memorize every single specific sentence. A lot of the time in lectures or the notes that you take down from lectures, lecturers and teachers and tutors may well go off topic and cover things that interest them that actually aren't in the exam or aren't relevant at all to your revision. And so you need to cut out these and be absolutely savage at not revising certain things. Equally, if you have very, very limited time, you might have to make a big decision and just cut out whole chapters of books or of topics that are going to come up on the syllabus and just think, I'm going to chance it on that and I'm going to focus my revision on the very high yield topics. As an example of this, when I was revising for my respiratory exams, again in first year before I discovered some of these evidence-based revision techniques, I decided that with just three days left before the exam, I actually didn't have time to deeply learn and revise oncology and respiratory. I just left this out completely because in the syllabus, it was only a small portion compared to the rest of respiratory disease like things like asthma and COPD, which is where I focused my cramming. This worked quite effectively, but it was a real gamble and it was pretty scary making the decision to just cut that out. But if you've got limited time, that might be something you need to do. This then nicely leads into tip number three, which is all about backing yourself and managing your physiology and your emotions in the run up to that final exam period. Now one of the reasons I'm so obsessed with learning and I've built some really successful ed-tech companies is that in my opinion, exams are really for the benefit of those bodies setting the exams like universities or schools rather than for the benefit of you the learner. Learning should be fun and it should be easy and a lot of the time exams create needless stress when we already know topics pretty well and they're quite arbitrary to move us to the next stage of our education or professional development. And so tip number three is really to put things in perspective and to remember to manage your emotions during exam times.
Optimise For Reasoning
If you have left things to the last minute, it's going to be really, really stressful. And that's why I don't advocate cramming as an effective study technique, not just because it's not as effective as using evidence based techniques like spacing or pre-reading or learning throughout the year and using active recall. It actually increases your stress levels and it can make learning really, really horrible and scary. While the temptation might be there to stay up all night and to try and cram in as much information into your short-term memory as possible, this just isn't going to be effective. and worse, it's going to leave you sleep deprived, it's going to leave you probably pretty dehydrated and malnourished over a short space of time, and you're not going to be at your cognitive best when it comes to applying your knowledge. People tend to fret about the minute facts that they might be asked, when in actuality exams are really about how you're going to use your brain to work out complex problems and apply that knowledge when it matters. And so you want to be at your peak fitness and be wide awake when they come round. For this reason, I'd aim to stop cramming and studying at a set time before your exam. I definitely wouldn't cram all the way through the night. And if you're in that situation, I'd highly suggest you put your books down, you close your laptop, and you try and go out for a run and then get some rest. In my opinion, it's much better to be alert and on form for the exam where you can work stuff out and back yourself with your own cognitive abilities than it is to try and pointlessly cram in lots and lots of facts into your brain which might not be tested and which might actually detract from your final exam performance. Instead, I suggest practicing some mindful exercises, getting a good night's sleep, having a bath or doing some exercise the morning of the exam and actually stopping doing active recall questions about three hours before you get your head down onto your pillow and certainly not trying to do anything on the day before the exam. Even if that feels helpful to you, it probably won't be when it matters. Now, I'm going to give a bonus fourth tip here that I think is really, really important if you want to get the most out of the limited amount of time you have before you have an exam.
BONUS TIP: Micro-Revision Timetable
And so pulling all of these three tips together, tip four is all about creating a structured timetable in the final few hours that you have before an exam so that you get the most out of that time. This is basically a micro revision timetable where you sit down and you outline exactly how much time you have between now and when your exam is.
If you have seven days, if you have five days, if you have two days, or you just have a couple of hours, you can divide that time up between actually revising and doing other things. You can also use this as a way to build out a focused timetable around the high yield topics that you're going to focus on. You can break this down by hour or into Pomodoro style 20-minute revision sessions so you really blast through as many questions in the key topics that you want to cover in the time you've got. element of actually managing your time effectively is really, really critical because it does two things. Firstly, it forces you to choose the topics that you're going to revise on. Secondly, it forces you to write down exactly what you're going to do, which then takes the stress out of actually doing it. If we have a plan laid out in front of us, it allows us to relax and not procrastinate because we know what we need to work through even if that time is short. Then, we can focus all our attention on executing, doing the active recall questions on the high-yield topics and not getting too stressed out even though the exam is just around the corner. In practical terms, if I just had 24 hours before an exam that I was sitting and I hadn't done any revision at all, what I'd do is I'd grab hold of some past papers or I'd get hold of the exam syllabus and I'd highlight things that I felt were high yield or I knew were going to be tested on on the exam. I then forced myself to select only 80% of that syllabus to work on and I'd program that in to some of the pass papers or to a question bank that I'd signed up to. I then split those topics into individual study sessions in the time that I had. And if I had too many topics, I'd just be savage and cut out the ones that weren't high yield or weren't as high yield as others. So that I was focusing on those questions most likely to be tested. I then open up my computer, get down to doing as many questions as possible, or if it's an oral exam, practicing with a friend or with a parent or whoever it is, and really just practice, practice, practice as much as you can. And finally, I'd also factor in some times for breaks and also my head to pillow time and my wind down routine time before the exam. I'd think about what I was going to do, maybe have a bath, maybe drink some tea, maybe just have a nice relaxing time before the exam itself so that I'm on form and I'm sharp, even though I'm cramming and I'm a little bit worried.
Now cramming is definitely not the best way to revise for exams, but don't worry if you're stuck in that situation. Remember, sometimes life does get in the way and be kind to yourself and just try and do your best.