Cramming and Your Brain

The mistake that many students make is that they think the path to long-term memory is a short one. In truth, it requires a little bit of effort. Cramming will never work because our brain does not work like an empty closet that can simply be filled by throwing everything we need to know inside of it. Instead, there is a process that must be followed if you are going to remember things.

In our first installment of The Psychology of Learning, we discussed how the context of where you learn has an impact on how well you learn.  Today we tackle the inevitable cram session.  When your teachers, mothers and professors tell you that cramming doesn’t work, they aren’t just making it up. Read on…

The Real World Examplecramming

We have all been there; the night before the final and you haven’t dedicated a minute to that class on “Maple Syrup” that you took as an elective and thought would be an easy A.  After all, you’ve had far more important things to worry about, like a Madden franchise or perhaps some actual studying on your Intro to Marketing class.  So before you call it a night you dedicate 2 hours to the fine science of Maple Sugaring. You remind yourself that,  “Below-freezing nights and sunny, warm (40 degrees F) days provide optimal conditions for sap to start moving up the tree.”  For the remainder of your night, you cram everything you were suppose to have already known about the fine art of making Maple Syrup into that sponge-like brain of yours in preparation of that test you have at 9:30am the following morning.

Inevitably, you manage a C+, which strikes you as odd.  On one hand, you did procrastinate a little bit but on the other hand you spent 2 solid hours just the night before studying the art and the best you can manage is a 78%.  At least you didn’t fail, right?  But why the heck isn’t 2 hours of study the day before a test about maple syrup enough to get at least a B?  Turns out that it’s not because you’re stupid, it’s just how our brain works.


Who Are They?
Murray Glanzer and Anita R. Cunitz of New York University for The Institute for Behavioral Research, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA in 1966.

Some Background in Memory

Glanzer and Cunitz worked off the assumption that humans have “two” memories. A “working memory” and a “long-term memory”. Working memory, they surmised, is a short-termed memory system that is only in use while you are “working” on something.  Think of working memory as your brain’s post-it note.  Long-term memory is what most of us think of as memory. If something is in long-term memory, we can remember it on demand.  Most people know, for example, that the leader of Nazi Germany was Hitler. In short, long-term memory is the goal in school.  If you are able to store everything you need to know for a test in long-term memory, chances are good that you’ll get an A.

The mistake that many students make is that they think the path to long-term memory is a short one.  In truth, it requires a little bit of effort.  Glanzer and Cunitz’s work begins to explain why.

What They Did

Glanzer and Cunitz designed two studies both relying on an often used model in which the presentation of a list of words to subjects who were then asked to recall as many of those words as possible immediately following the presentation of the list (this procedure is known as free recall). Glanzer and Cunitz knew that the subjects would, in general, be able to recall more words from the beginning and end of the list than the middle based on the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus.  Glanzer and Cunitz tweaked this common methodology two ways.

In the first experiment, they varied the presentation rate of the words.  In some trials, they lengthened the duration between words, and in some they shortened it.

In the second experiment, they varied the delay with which words were presented and when the subject was asked to recall the words. In some trials there was a small duration between the reading of the list and the recall of the list. In others, this duration was lengthened.

What They Found

As expected, Glanzer and Cunitz found a common U-shaped “Serial Position Curve” which displays better recall of the first and last sections of the list but a severe inability to recall words in the middle of the list.  This was expected due to two known effects: the primacy effect (which explains why the begining of the list is remembered more easily) and the recency effect (which explains why the end of the list is remembered more easily).

What they also predicted was that the rate at which words were presented would effect the begining of the curve (the primacy effect).  If words were presented more slowly, more words were remembered early in the curve.

Lastly, they predicted that the duration of time between presentation and recall would effect the end of the curve.  If there was more time between the presentation and recall, less words at the end were remembered.  If there was less time, more words were remembered.


The Serial Position Curve

Explaining What’s Going On

The reason that words in the begining of the list are remembered more is because as the subject is read the words, they have the ability to commit those words to memory, typically by internally repeating them in their head until there is too much information to process. If there is more time to do this, by slowing the pace at which the words are read, for example, you will remember more words.  At this point, near the middle of the list, the brain is relying more on it’s short-term working memory.  This is why recency of the list matters.  Things are only stored in our working-memory for brief periods of time.  Thus, if there is more time between the presentation of the list and recall of the list, there is more of a chance that these words escape our working-memory.

What This Means

I hope that you can make the connection between cramming for a test and this free-recall experiment.  When you are “craming”, you are essentially reading a list of facts to yourself and trying to commit them to memory.  Unfortunately most of these things won’t actually be committed to memory and will be forgotten in a few hours.  This is not to say that you won’t remember anything.  Chances are good that come test time, the things you studied at the beginning of your “cram” session will be recalled, and some of the things at the end of the “cram” session will be recalled.  The majority though, will be lost among many other post-it notes in your brain.


So what can you do? Here are 5 cramming tips:

1. Avoid cramming.  You are better off spending 20-30 minutes a night for the duration of a month or more trying to focus on a small portion of facts

2. If you have to cram, try and study the more important parts of the test at the beginning of your cram session, the next most important things at the end, and the least important things in the middle

3. If cramming is a must, try and reduce the amount of material you study.  If there is a smaller list of things to try and remember, you’ll likely remember more of them.

4. Cramming is about prioritizing.  If you have gotten to this point you are already in trouble.  Focus on the most important material.  You simply can’t remember everything so if you can weed out the trivial stuff then you can dedicate more memory to the important stuff.

5. Did I mention that you should avoid cramming?

(5 points to anyone who see’s what I did with that list)

More Reading

Two Storage Mechanisms in Free Recall (the study)

The Psychology of Learning: Why Context Matters (a laymanpsych article)


  • List:5 cramming tips. 5 points! Great article. I never fully believed in cramming but found myself caught in this unfulfilling activity and I must say that the study is pretty on point. I fell in this exact category as far as the chart goes when it came to remembering what was in the body of my “cram” study session. I would always remember what I started reading first and what my studies ended with. Same with remembering number sequences, averages, and so on…

  • […] up failing the class as well. Let this be a warning to all you procrastinators. Studies like this one have also shown that the brain has difficulty processing a lot of information in a short period of […]

  • Enjoyed the article. Thanks!
    One nitpick:
    “…would effect the begining of the curve…”
    …would affect the beginning of the curve…

    The same with the end of the curve.

  • […] and make sure to start studying/writing your papers early instead of waiting until the last minute! Cramming may help you pass that midterm that’s coming up in four hours, but you’ll have […]

  • You put to avoid cramming first and last so that we’d remember it…most important stuff first and last. I see what you did there :)

  • ya I figured out the five point question… don’t do it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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