Breaking the Cramming Cycle and Improving Memory

How much will students remember from your course tomorrow, next week, next month, next semester, or next year? Let's be honest, in most cases, not as much as we would hope or as much as they should. What's at the root of this problem? Students often get distracted during class, and they don't listen well. They cram before exams, take the tests, and then promptly forget most of what they “learned.” But there is good news: teachers can use proven strategies that help students break this nonproductive pattern and learn course material more deeply.

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How much will students remember from your course tomorrow, next week, next month, next semester, or next year? Let's be honest, in most cases, not as much as we would hope or as much as they should. What's at the root of this problem? Students often get distracted during class, and they don't listen well. They cram before exams, take the tests, and then promptly forget most of what they “learned.” But there is good news: teachers can use proven strategies that help students break this nonproductive pattern and learn course material more deeply. Early researchers such as Hermann Ebbinghaus have shown that most of what we experience and learn is quickly forgotten, and that's actually a good thing. If we remembered everything, our minds would be cluttered with too much less-than-helpful information. Because everyone forgets, teachers need to be realistic about how much students will retain. Just because we say something once in class, we cannot expect them to remember it indefinitely. So what can teachers do to help students remember more of what they learn in a course? While there are many influences that affect memory and forgetting, we believe it starts with an awareness of three key factors that strengthen a student's ability to remember facts, rules, relationships, processes, skills, and other important information. According to J.R. Anderson in Learning and Memory: An Integrated Approach, these factors are recency, frequency, and potency. Recency The memory strength of an individual item is stronger the more recently it has been encountered. Students figured this out a long time ago. This is why they cram for exams. If students wait until shortly before an exam and review what they anticipate will be tested, they can remember it for the exam. Shortly thereafter, the information fades yet again into functional oblivion. Take two students, for instance, who both review their notes for your exam. Student A reviews two days before the exam, and Student B reviews one hour before. All other things being equal, Student B will outperform Student A because of recency. Teacher need to help students recognize that shorter, distributed practice sessions improve exam performance better than cramming. One approach to help deepen learning and decrease cramming is to pay attention to the types of questions you ask on a test. Cramming works best when exam questions concentrate on details—information that can be memorized and regurgitated. When exam questions require application and judgment, students will quickly learn that cramming is not an effective strategy in your course. Frequency The memory strength of an individual item is stronger the more frequently it has been encountered. This reality also encourages students to cram. They will repeatedly review selected course material in a compressed time frame (often right before the test) instead of spreading reviews over time, which increases the likelihood that the information will be retained longer. To illustrate, two students both review course material five times. Student A crams all five reviews into the hour immediately before the test. Student B spreads four reviews across the previous two weeks, with a fifth review during the hour before the exam. Both students spend the same amount of time reviewing. For students of equal ability taking a demanding test, Student B will likely outperform Student A on that exam and will also remember the material longer. Spreading out review and recall over time goes by several names, spacing or lag effect and distributed practice, for example. Potency The memory strength of an individual item is stronger the more powerfully and notably it has been encountered. Consider for a moment what you remember from your own undergraduate education. Odds are you remember learning moments that were unique or out of the ordinary. The same holds true for students in your courses. Students are, after all, more than just cognitive in nature. There are also social, emotional, and affective elements at play in their life and education. Teaching strategies that engage more of the breadth and depth of a student's life and experience are more likely to be remembered. For example, Teacher A presents his or her class with a long list of textual facts. Teacher B presents the same information, but in an engaging and thought-provoking manner that awakens curiosity and a sense of relevant discovery in the students. And once again, all other things being equal, Teacher B's students will outperform Teacher A's on a rigorous exam and retain the information longer. What Can Teachers Do? Understanding these three concepts enables teachers to use strategies that facilitate deep learning that equates with understanding that lasts. Being aware of student limitations regarding learning and remembering is only half of the solution. Put the power of recency, frequency, and potency to work in your course!