Why Students Cram for Exams

It will probably not shock any instructor to learn that students cram for exams. What may be a bit surprising is the percentage of students who do: somewhere between 25 percent and 50 percent, depending on the study. In the research reported in the article referenced below, approximately 45 percent of students admitted to cramming.

However, there is one unexpected and unfortunate surprise: cramming as a study strategy is effective, at least by some criteria. This article’s review of the literature section lists five different studies conducted between 1968 and 2001—all of which found that cramming did not affect course grades negatively. This study did find more mixed results. If students agreed that they used cramming “for most of my courses,” those students tended to have lower GPAs, with the converse also being true. However, this study looked at a particular course, Principles of Marketing, and for that course “the course grade is not significantly related to the degree of cramming reportedly used in the course.” (p. 233)

The problem with cramming has to do with retention and it is here that previous research, including this study, offers conclusive results. When students cram, the information is stored in short-term memory and information stored there doesn’t stay there long. The results reported in this study illustrate this finding in a very graphic way. A student in the high-cramming category with a course grade of 85 would, at 150 weeks after the course (based on predictions derived from repeated test scores), be retaining only 27 percent of what he or she learned in the course.

Despite the fact that many currently used assessment strategies promote cramming and the short-term memory acquisition of content, it is not a case of one testing format promoting cramming more than another. Researchers worried that maybe multiple-choice testing methods actually encouraged cramming. That hypothesis was not confirmed by their results. Students crammed just as often for essay exams as they did for multiple-choice exams.

There is a bit of cause for optimism, though. Students in this study “resoundingly agree” that cramming is not a strategy that enhances long-term learning and retention. They know it’s not the way to really learn the material. But because so many of their peers study this way, because college students tend to procrastinate, and because they now lead busy, busy lives, cramming is an appealing alternative.

This is another one of those articles packed full of good information on an important topic. It includes the 49-question instrument developed to determine if students crammed and if they thought the approach was effective. Mean responses for individual items are also included. Administering an instrument like this to students can be as revealing to them as to the instructor.

Finally, the authors take teachers to task for their teaching methods. “The all-to-common use of PowerPoint slide lectures, even with in-class handouts of the slides, does not engage students to take notes in their own language and handwriting, which shunts the processing of the material, leaving all effective learning to the cramming period at the end of the term.” (p. 237) In other words, it’s not just test formats that assess deep learning that forestalls cramming; how material is presented in class can also make a difference.

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, 30 (3), 226-243.

Excerpted from Cramming for Exams, January 2009, The Teaching Professor.