The Science of Cramming

I went to a very nerdy college. This school was so nerdy that the “mascot” was an engineer, and at football games students would chant: “Tangent, secant, cosine, sine. Three point one four one five nine. Go Engineers!”

I’m not kidding.

So how is it possible that today I do not even know what a secant is? Or a sine. To be truthful, I don’t think I really know what trigonometry is, though I’m pretty sure I did back then. My recollection is that I studied all the time, but I seem to have retained almost nothing from my early immersion in math and science.

Was I studying the wrong way during all those wee hours? Well, as it turns out I may have been. The fact is nobody talked much about how to study back then. You just went to class and did homework and took quizzes and complained about it. But you never thought about how long to study or when take a break or call it quits. But psychologists have been thinking about studying and memory and long-term learning, and it appears that some strategies really do work much better than others.

Consider “overlearning.” That’s the term learning specialists use for drilling even after you’ve mastered something. Say you’re studying new vocabulary words, flash-card style, and you finally run through the whole list error-free; any study beyond that point is overlearning. Is this just a waste of valuable time, or does this extra effort embed the new memory even deeper for the long haul?

University of South Florida psychologist Doug Rohrer decided to explore this question scientifically. Working with APS Fellow Harold Pashler of the University of California, San Diego, he had two groups of students study new vocabulary in different ways. One group drilled themselves five times; these students got a perfect score no more than once. The others kept drilling, for a total of 10 trials; with this extra effort, the students had at least three perfect run-throughs. The psychologists quizzed all the students again one week later and once more three weeks after that.

The results were interesting. When the students took the test a week later, those who had done the extra drilling performed better, but they didn’t on the test three weeks later. So overlearning would work for something like cramming for the SATs, because you really don’t care if you forget those obscure words once you’re in college. But whatever edge the more effortful students had at one week had completely disappeared by four weeks. In other words, if students are interested in learning that lasts, that extra effort is really a waste. Go watch some TV or get some sleep.

Rohrer and Pashler also wanted to see if the scheduling of study breaks might make a difference in learning. It did. When the students took breaks ranging from five minutes to two weeks, those who had taken a one-day break performed best when they were tested 10 days later. But if they were tested six months later (the laboratory equivalent of long-term learning), the optimal break time was a full month. In other words, as reported in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science (D. Rohrer & and H. Pashler, “Increasing retention without increasing study time”), “massing” all the study on a single topic together diminishes learning. It’s better to leave it alone for a while and then return to it, and indeed the longer you want new learning to endure, the longer the optimal break between study sessions.

All these experiments involved rote learning, but Rohrer and Pashler have also found similar effects with more abstract learning, like math. This is particularly troubling, the psychologists say, because most mathematics textbooks today are organized to encourage both overlearning and massing of study time, which means students are wasting a lot of precious learning time.

All we were taught about study skills at my nerdy school was to keep a clean, well-lit work space and eat a good breakfast, and most of us ignored that advice. I suspect there are a lot of reasons why I have forgotten everything about sines and secants over the years. But some scientifically grounded learning skills couldn’t have hurt.

For more insights into the quirks of human behavior, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

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