We have reached the half-way point of Term 1 and assessments are either underway or soon will be. This week, I thought it worthwhile for students to take stock of how they are progressing with academics. I believe it is worth explicitly thinking about how individuals learn and how they study. It may sound simple, but memory pays a significant role in academic success. When my generation was at school, there was no internet. That meant it was harder to find out information. Even more so, when we discovered something, we had to try to remember it. Because it had been so difficult to find in the first place, we didn’t want to have to go through that process again. But here’s the thing, the conscious act of placing value and importance on what we learnt, helped us remember. Today, it is much easier to find out information which can mean that there is less value placed on remembering. Information is easy to find it again. But examinations still exist, and students still need to be able to rely on memory for not only content but also skills and processes.
One of the most effective skills for learning is the process of spaced study. The goal of spaced study is to move memories from the short term to long term memory. You do this by revising the work you have learnt in class at regular spaced intervals. Research shows that without intervention and under normal circumstances, you would forget almost everything you learn. This is actually a necessary human trait as it allows us to filter the important from the unimportant. It is exactly why you probably don’t remember what you had for dinner three weeks ago (unless it was particularly good of course). Forgetting the mundane, allows us to make space for more valuable memories. By spacing our learning, we force our brain to transfer memories around just as we might be beginning to lose them. Over time, this moves them from short term to long term memory. It is why repetition in learning works.
On the other end of the study technique spectrum is cramming. Many have immediate success and hence feel validated by using it. Whilst cramming may result in some short-term benefit, in the longer term, it can be harmful. Here are three reasons why.
First, cramming actually takes more time. You learn more in the same amount of time when spaced out (e.g., five hours in one hour increments compared to one five hour cram session). You would have to spend more time during the cramming session to get to the same level of learning.
Second, as quickly as you learn information, you will also forget it. You may do fine on the test, but all that extra time you spent during cramming will have been wasted. If you had spaced your learning, you would forget much less after the test. No matter what you are learning – English, Mathematics, Spanish – future learning will depend on previous learning. It is therefore very inefficient to forget everything you learned for one test, only to have to re-learn it again later along with new, more complicated information.
Another reason why cramming is a bad idea is that it inevitably replaces sleep, which is very important for learning and also for mental and physical health more generally. Genuine learning cannot occur in isolation. If you are stressed or tired, your brain simply does not work in the same way. Good health and wellbeing are not only important for your daily functioning but are also vital for your learning. This is one of the reasons Girls Grammar invests so heavily in student care and wellbeing. Healthy bodies and minds are required for long term academic success.
Dr John Fry
Deputy Principal - Studies