The Science of Cramming

Monday, August 27, 2007

By Wray Herbert

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 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 ten trials; with this extra effort, the students had at least three perfect run-throughs. Then the psychologists quizzed all the students, once one week later and again 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. So it 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 ten 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, “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

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:48 PM


At 1:54 PM , Blogger Shaust said...

Anybody in the college environment with the nerve to take a look around (as I did), can see the fruitlessness of excessive studying.

At 11:51 PM , Blogger Ann said...

Fascinating research. I also was an engineer and have forgotten trig and calculus. However, I assumed it was because I did not use it every day. The knowledge I learned for my Masters degree (Communication Disorders)and have since applied in my work (speech language pathology)has stuck with me. When I helped my son study for 9th grade vocabulary, not only did we flash card, but we used the words in sentences. Occasionally, I would use the words in sentences for several days in a row in different contexts, and that seemed to help them stick better as well.

At 9:09 AM , Blogger Magnus said...

"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 ten 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"

Just out of curiosity is it a typing error or did they do additional testing (not only a two weeks max break)?

At 1:24 PM , Blogger Cathy said...

I wonder if the advantages of taking a break from a subject have any relationship to the traditional summer break for primary school students. One often hears complaints from teachers that students lose a great deal over the summer, and time is wasted covering old material at the beginning of the year. Perhaps the summer break actually helps. Of course, college students are a select group of students. Can we extrapolate to all ages and abilities?
This is especially interesting research for gifted students who, by definition, learn more quickly and need less repetition to retain material. Gifted students are keenly aware their time is being wasted by repetitive drilling, and often the result is negative, self-destructive behavior to compensate for boredom. Computer-based learning for certain subjects allows students to move at their own pace, partly by only practicing material they answered wrong on quizzes. They don't need to review materials they already know. Thus, certain subjects lend themselves to computer-based delivery, a fact that truly frightens and befuddles most public school administrators and teachers. Alas, it may be a long, long time before the results of this type of research filter down to curriculum policy makers in public school districts.

At 2:28 PM , Blogger goodness gracious! said...

cathy's point, about the negative effects of enforced drilling and memorization, is very interesting. when i was reading this entry, i immediately thought of the benefits of self imposed drilling-a feeling of mastery. i know when i've had the opportunity to study something in which memorization plays a key part-less and less often as i go up the education ladder-i enjoy that "i win!" feeling of totally mastering something, and will run through it a few more times, just to re-experience doing well. one could call it a waste of time, but it also gives me confidence and is a kind of immediate payoff, without the stress of the actual test-taking.

however, i do vividly remember having to do "busy work", especially in elementary school, and since that meant spending lots of time one something i did not find challenging or interesting, and thus felt no sense of accomplishment when i did well, i often would refuse to do it at all, and would wind up getting failing grades on my homework and top marks on my tests. good times!

great blog-i've been looking for psych blogs and happy i've found yours!

At 2:43 AM , Blogger Dennis said...

i guess a deeper focus, especially on higher studies gives you to go beyond very exam like understanding.... You try to get a better feel of the subject, additional materials, resources, futher possibilities and references etc.. If the student is not doing that, instead gets a bookish view of the subject then its not a good way of learning anyway...even if he takes break, week long or month long.. Hope I am not very didactic here..but point is extra time spend on a subject will furhter understanding of the subject..

At 1:56 PM , Blogger Jared said...

I have observed exactly this result in my own life. I got a pilots license about two years ago. This involved a lot of practice doing take offs and landings in various weather/wind conditions as well as lots of book knowledge about regs and procedures. After I got the license I started increasing the amount of time between these practice sessions... first a month.. then 3.. and sadly until recently it's been a year since I've flown. Each time I made an effort to drill this stuff for a few hours in the 3 kinds of planes I fly.. and each time it was relatively easy to get back to what I consider proficient. There was little difference in my performance after a 3 month gap than a 12 month gap.

At 5:43 PM , Blogger I'm Stranger than Fiction said...

I'm in college now (THIRD major) and I took medical terminology last term as a science elective. The terms I did 'overlearning' on, I remember better now, almost 4 months after the end of the class, than the ones I simply stopped once I initially mastered. Some of the terms (especially prefixes and suffixes) showed up in multiple chapters, yet I never mastered them, despite learning them (but not overlearning) each time. I'm in the camp that overlearning is more beneficial... I'm actually in psych now and despite learning some of the basic theories (id, ego, superego) I forget them and have to relearn each term. Now I will try to overlearn them, so that maybe next term, I will have that much less to learn!

At 10:14 PM , Blogger Michael Dunn, SGA VP Communications said...

I think this is kind of is the rest of this blog. Do you have any other interesting blogs like this that you recommend? Thanks!

At 11:30 PM , Blogger NeedleNoz said...

The only time rote learning helped me was in learning basic vocabulary and the times table. Somehow, and I'm not sure why, but by the time I flowed through high school and college, my courses all seemed to blend well - learning, comprehension, and retention seemed easier as the subjects being studied all related to one another. The only "dissonance" in this methodology was when I threw physics into the mix - but then my theology/philosophy professor began a course of study on quantum theological thought. . .and once again, that blend occurred. Perhaps some learners are more like myself - we take the supposedly disparate pieces of education and find a way to connect them - a way that allows for retention simply because the the knowledge flows rather than being dammed up by a single focus.