Studying to Survive

Why is it so hard to study in advance for a test?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Lillian Dong

I have a routine every evening: once I get home from track practice and complete my homework, I think about what test I have tomorrow. After I’ve gone over the hurdles I’ll have to face the next day, I review my notes, reference the Internet, and hope for the best.

Has it ever occurred to me to study in advance? Yes, many times. Sometimes on idle weekends, I’ll open Google Classroom, go to the “To-do” tab, and see a line of test assignments waiting for me. Biology and math. Spanish and global studies. But when I reach for my notes and open my textbook, I am almost inevitably distracted by other, more appealing things.

Why memorize some vocabulary when I could go outside with friends? Why learn the power of a point when I could be spending my free time doing something other than what I already do five days a week? This mindset leads to a cycle of last-minute studying. There are mixed views regarding this style of studying, known as cramming, which many students associate with stress and fatigue. However, cramming can actually be more beneficial than most make it out to be—as long as it’s done right.

The crux of cramming is also what makes it so notorious—it puts the pressure of timing on students. This makes studying a priority, encouraging the mindset of “get it done” instead of instigating further procrastination. In a way, the pressure of cramming activates the ingrained human “survival drive,” which kicks in when people are put in stressful situations. This instinct is one that used to have much more primitive purposes, such as finding food and water to prevent starvation and dehydration. This mechanism also manifests in the fight-or-flight response, during which the brain senses danger and sends stress hormones to the rest of the body, spurring it into action, whether that means fleeing or squaring up. Now that the number of physical stressors in modern society has drastically decreased, our brains react with stress hormones to perceived threats that are far from life-threatening, such as the pressure of a shortly upcoming exam.

Though this ingrained response can have positive effects—our body forces us to do the studying that our mind doesn’t want to––it can also have unhealthy consequences. The last-minute studying that people associate with testing is often not the most effective or healthy practice. Cramming usually comes with memories of late nights behind a laptop, frantically scrolling, or early mornings in front of a textbook while so tired that words no longer make sense. This leads directly to an argument commonly made for why people should not study at the last minute: the strain and anxiety damages people’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Stress causes a variety of issues, from aches, pains, trouble sleeping, and headaches to fatigue, irritability, depression, and panic attacks, depending on the severity of the situation. Additionally, for all the benefits it may have in pushing people to study, stress can also lead to academic pitfalls such as procrastination, exhaustion, and staying up much too late. Studies have repeatedly shown that lack of sleep is correlated with worse performance, not to mention additional detriments to health. Using harmful methods of cramming can put students in their exam room the next day, unable to focus and desperate for sleep while feeling frustrated that their studying seems to have had no effect at all.

From preserving good mental and physical health to actually productively preparing for a test, cramming should be practiced in a healthy, reliable, and stable way. It probably isn’t the most useful strategy if you’re being introduced to new material the night before an exam, but reviewing subjects on a “cram schedule” can bring them back into your immediate memory. However, do not rely on cramming to help you memorize topics in the long term; for subjects such as physics, cramming may work for one test, but it won’t alleviate struggling in the next unit and the next, especially since concepts often build on each other. To most effectively study for a course, one should not rely on cramming as their sole study resource. Instead, have short study sessions in advance to reteach yourself the material. On the night before, set aside a chunk of time to review, ranging from 10 minutes to an hour, and ensure you reduce stress and get sleep, too.

That being said, whatever works for you is whatever works for you. Methods of studying are personal preferences, and though I plan to implement some of these strategies into my studies, I know that I’ll be having at least a few more harried cram sessions in the years to come.