December 2, 2008

Key Questions about Cramming

By: in Teaching and Learning, Teaching Professor Blog

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Cramming—now there’s a timely topic given the fast approaching end of fall courses. Do students cram for your exams? For the exams of your colleagues? In those bygone days, did you ever resort to cramming?

For the January issue of the newsletter I’m highlighting a fine piece of research on cramming. I wish I’d found the article in time for the December issue. I love the very pragmatic questions explored empirically by these researchers: How widespread is cramming among students? Do students think cramming is an effective study strategy? Does cramming work, as in how does it affect course grades? And the really bottom line questions: How effective is cramming in the long run? What’s the impact on learning and retention?

Students have crammed for decades. What most of us don’t know is how many use this study strategy. The lit review in the article references a collection of studies that puts the percentage somewhere between 25 and 50. In this research sample, 45 percent were on the agree side of a scale that measured the extent of cramming.

A bit disconcerting is the fact (documented by five different studies cited in the article and some of this research) that cramming works in the short term. Preparing this way for exams does not impact the grades earned on those exams. Long term, the story is very different. Students who cram lose what they’ve learned very quickly, as anybody who teaches a course in a sequence knows firsthand.

Perhaps the question that most needs addressing is this one: How come our exams can be mastered so successfully by students who’ve prepared by cramming? You might think it’s just a problem with multiple-choice exams. Not so. In this study and others the amount of cramming students reported was not a function of exam type. Are we testing too much recall on our exams? It might be interesting to go through an exam (preferably one of your own) and see how many questions can be answered with material you could memorize but not understand at all or well.

A host of intriguing questions surrounds this topic and how timely to talk about them with students now, even if the discussion is brief. How would you and your students define cramming? Do your students know how negatively cramming impacts long-term retention? How did your students who don’t cram arrive at these other approaches? Would they recommend them to other students? Why?

Reference: McIntyre, S. H, and Munson, J. M. (2008). Exploring cramming: Student behaviors, beliefs, and learning retention in the Principles of Marketing Course. Journal of Marketing Education. 30 (3), 226-243.

—Maryellen Weimer

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