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Exam cramming is not learning

It is common and natural for students to cram ahead of examinations, but unless they have a better concept of the various subjects, they will soon forget what they have learnt in school, defeating the purpose and value of education.

It is common and natural for students to cram ahead of examinations, but unless they have a better concept of the various subjects, they will soon forget what they have learnt in school, defeating the purpose and value of education.

Memory and retention is a key ingredient in learning. The frequent occurrence of memories, thoughts and ideas help with the interpretation and understanding of new experiences and ideas.

There is extraordinary diversity in how individuals behave in this respect. One remembers well; another, poorly. This is true not only when comparing individuals but also for the same individual in different phases of time (morning and evening) and age (young and old).

Memory also varies by content; some can remember music and songs easily, but are remarkably forgetful when it comes to other things. This depends on the intensity of the attention and interest attached by the individual to the content.

Some experiences are more universal — the pain of touching fire is a one-shot seared into memory. For most other experiences, frequent repetitions make possible the remembrance. The mastery of vocabulary, multiplication tables, rhymes and poems is generally ensured only by repetition.

But even then, if the material is not tapped and used, the ability to recall content is lost over time.

The most common way in which students learn is geared towards taking and passing examinations. Students pull all-nighters and cram at exam time. This type of content vanishes fast if it is not grounded by conceptual understanding and later subjected to review. “He who crams fast, forgets fast.”

The more the knowledge is used, the more it is retained and helps to grow other knowledge. Conversely, even deeply ingrained content, like one’s mother tongue, is impaired if not used for an extended time — I can attest to that from my own personal experience.

This brings up a key issue for learning and forgetting: What do we know about forgetting? German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’ experiments on memory loss are interesting.

First, he created a list of 2,000-plus nonsense words, each with one vowel and consonants. He then memorised eight lists of 13 words, waited for some time, then recollected and re-learnt them. He tested himself over periods of 20 minutes, an hour, nine hours, one day, two days, six days and 31 days. He noted how long it took him to relearn the list each time, and then recorded it as a percentage of the original time it took him to learn the list. Forgetting was steep — in 20 minutes, only 58 per cent of the original learning was saved, and over a week, only 25 per cent was retained.

What improves retention — repetition. Moreover, repetition spaced over time works better. This is called spaced learning and has been used in various programmes to improve one’s vocabulary.

The education methods in our schools need to take into account of this short-lived nature of memory.

Let’s discourage our students from cramming everything just before an examination. Instead, let’s encourage them to get a better grasp of the subject matter, so they will not simply learn and forget.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009. This is part of a weekly series on the way we learn.

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