Should You Be Cramming When There is 6 Weeks Left in the Semester? | ACADEMIC.EXPERT

Is Cramming the Answer When There Are 6 Weeks Left in the Semester?

Question: “Joe. There are about 6 weeks left in the semester. How does my student make the most out of the time left?”

Answer: Thank you for the question. It is a very common one.

Cramming Never Works

There are no magic solutions to “catch up. If this blog leaves you thinking, “This is all what my student probably should have been doing from the start of the semester. I get that. But, I need short-term answers and approaches so that they can quickly ‘catch up’ and get an ‘A’.”

You are right. There are no shortcuts to mastery. If there were, then why engage in effective study habits before the very end?

The steps to mastery don’t change depending on time left in a semester. More effort can be put in to accelerate the process a bit.

But—and, this is critical—some steps in the process of learning and mastery must go through a minimum amount of time and iteration. Cramming can not be supported and work when the mastery needs time to grow.

Why Doesn’t Cramming Work?

Late in the semester, panic usually sets in. The student turns to a mindset that they need to cram.

What is cramming? Cramming is based on memorization of current facts or materials that the student has to “learn.” Cramming forces attempts at learning into a very short period of time as opposed to “spaced out learning.”

Memorization does not result in meaningful learning or mastery. Memorized facts are not retained—which is an interesting dichotomy, in and of itself.

One can not force mastery of a subject or the current elements of a subject without a firm foundation (mastery) of prior material as well.

Spaced Out Learning vs. Cramming

This whole concept of not cramming might seem like it is easier said than done. Of course, it is not easy! However, most of my students claim that cramming works for them. (They don’t have an explanation though for why it doesn’t play out that way!)

Click here for a summary as to why cramming does not work.

Academic Recovery

Change of Habits

I have learned so much from reading James Clear.

One might think that late in the semester, there is no point in changing habits. “There is not enough time to initiate good study habits. I need to start cramming.”

By and large, cramming rarely works, at least in any meaningful manner.

I will qualify this by stating that low-functioning programs or curricula might believe that cramming works in the sense of grades may improve a bit. That is nothing more that students memorizing through cramming the bare minimum.

When that is all that is required, then one might see some “benefit” to cramming. However, I am focused on education approaches that value mastery and life long lessons and habits.

Retention is poor when habits do not exist or lack consistency of execution. This is one of the primary reasons that students are not, overall, doing well. Habits establish patterns, consistent patterns that enable students to be able to count on themselves to accomplish goals and succeed.

What Needs to Change NOW

While this following article is about studying for finals, I would strongly disagree on one important point. A week is not nearly enough time to study for a final. Studying for a final should be a focus for at least a month before the final.

But, there is a lot of good information here—Don’t Cram for the Exam: 9 Ways to Study Effectively for Finals

Most students:

  • don’t know how to study
  • rarely refer to or study material more than a week behind the present
  • believe that they know the material when don’t their level of understanding is at a surface level
  • don’t understand the purpose, role or benefit of research
  • Most importantly, perhaps…most students are taught in a classroom environment that values memorization and, as a result, are not active learners.

So, it should not be a surprise that students choose cramming as a “study approach.”

Outcomes won’t change until consistent habits are enacted.

How To Study vs. Cramming

Studying is not just doing homework. Studying habits should begin the first day of school. Actually, it should start prior to that with students scanning over the books or material that will be covered in the term.

Studying should have the following elements (note how most of these are not an element of cramming):

  • Consistency
  • Set times every day
  • Construct a plan for the student’s weak areas
  • Focus extra studying in those areas
  • Go back to the beginning of the semester, review all relevant material, redo homework and available tests (this should be done consistently throughout the semester as well)
  • Review in their books or online resources those topics that are weak
  • Work with a tutor or peers (choose peers that are doing maybe one grade better than they are)
  • ***** When they study, they MUST be actively digging into the material, construct “why” questions related to the material, and take those questions to the teacher or tutor
  • Review does not just mean re-read. Some pencil-in-hand techniques must be incorporated, such as rewriting notes, re-organizing notes, work additional problems, especially the difficult ones

Most of these activities or habits can be initiated at any point in the term or semester. It will bear fruit.

Are the Habits Worth It? Why Not Just Cram?

That question is really up to you and your student—but, mostly for them.

The decision must be made as to what the goals are. Is a grade of C or even B good enough or is mastery important?

Ultimately the cause of most of the struggles and the drop in overall mastery has to do with the students not being able to interrelate concepts.

The Socratic Method of Inquiry is largely absent from most schools. Even more importantly, students don’t understand that “study for mastery” MUST BE a DAILY activity. Cramming never works.

Again, the goals have to be well understood as well as the habits necessary to meet the goals. Just wanting it is enough.

Students don’t know how to understand the underpinnings of why the topics of their instruction relate. So this is why the common mantra from students about their ability or inability to succeed is due to the fact that they are a “poor test taker.”

Cramming takes from us and gives little in return, learning can be a lifelong activity. Take a long look at this young man; getting his 3rd doctorate degree in his late 80’s—Joy of Life Long Learning.

“My Student Knows the Material, But Tests Poorly”

This statement is rarely true. The vast majority of the time, students test poorly because while they may have memorized (crammed) the surface of the material, they know that they have NOT mastered the material. That mental and emotional conflict is what results in stress.

When students do poorly on exams, it is for two main reasons. One is that they know that they have not mastered the material. Secondly, they are unable to analyze concepts for similarities or relevance to each other.

In other words, if they have not been literally taught exactly what is on the test, they can not extrapolate to other concepts.

“So, My Student Really Only Has 6 Weeks Left”

One might ask and observe—there are only six weeks left. Is this all necessary?

Remember the saying, “Do what you have always done and you will get what you have always gotten.”

Depending on where your student is in the semester, the reality is that it may be too late to reach the student’s initial goals. However, the good news is, it is NOT too late to establish the habits that will be required to be successful.

For the rest of the semester, get a very detailed syllabus from the professor if one isn’t currently available.

Prepare for class by introducing oneself to the material. (The successful student should already always be doing this. Don’t let material be presented in class for the first time.)

If you have limited time left, focus on the study habits and consistency; the pencil-in-hand habits done and repeated every day.


About the Author:

Joe has 30+ years' experience as a developer, technical lead and manager of large scale defense, avionics and private sector programs. His work with youth includes six years as a private teacher and tutor focusing on STEM material. He is also a published technical author, conference presenter and technical team trainer.

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