“You cram these words into mine ears against
The stomach of my sense.” – Shakespeare
Teachers pretty much hate it when students cram. It’s a half-step superior to total apathy, they allow, but only just. I think, though, that the issue is a little more intricate than it often gets credit for.
What is Cramming?
Taking the OED at its word, “cramming” means – “to fill (a receptacle) with more than it properly or conveniently holds, by force or compression.” While this doesn’t sound like fun, it needn’t be intrinsically bad. Moreover, I will contend, it is not an intrinsically bad thing even in the context of preparing for a test, where we might rebrand it as, “cramming” – gorging your brain with facts as quickly as possible. Even when done at the last minute, there is nothing inherently wrong with cramming.
One of the main criticisms of cramming is that you stuff information into your head and, rather than giving it time to sink in for long-term recall, it falls out shortly thereafter, forevermore. In practice, this is generally valid. People stuff their short-term recall full by repeating things over to themselves (repeating something to yourself so you give it no time to be forgotten is called using an “auditory feedback loop”). As a principle, though, it isn’t necessarily true.
Remember memory palaces? Executive summary: an entire forgotten discipline exists engineered towards remembering mass quantities of things – even elaborate, foreign, and unfamiliar things – by exploiting our brains’ power concerning space and sense engagement. Using this, people can establish factual knowledge that will last a long time.
Consider the case of Jeopardy! contestant Bob Harris (whom I referenced in the aforecited article). His entire strategy when he got on the show was predicated on cramming. Years later, when called back for successive tournaments (the Masters and Ultimate Tournament of Champions) after his original run, even though Harris had to review all sorts of information and add in as much as he could, plenty of what his memory palaces had created reminded frosty.
The list of U.N. Secretaries-General, for example, had become the primary part of the equation for him; the actual sticky pneumonics that he had used were what demanded energy to reconstruct, puzzling over insane cartoons in spiral notebooks. (This is recounted in his book Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy. Namely: “When I started writing this section [of my book], jotting down the names of the U.N. Secretaries-General was the easy part. I had to look up the story in my notebooks.” He adds, “I never would have believed this a decade ago.”)
The lesson so far is that if you’re a student, cram with memory palaces, not with short-term loops. If the long-term retention doesn’t motivate you, then just to be clear: Memory palaces are also more effective in the short term.
But Should We Cram?
The other dimension of the “cramming for tests” subject is the motive element: Why is it that people cram? In most cases, I think that the answer really is the standard one: lack of motivation. Laziness. Procrastination. It needn’t be, of course – say that you’re forced to take an entry level course in college on a subject that you already know about, or the class is moving slowly. You learn quickly that you really don’t have to work ahead to do fine.
Is there an actual problem with laziness or procrastination?
In short, yes. The first problem is more unforgiving: Laziness is a habit of soul that none of us should cultivate. If you practice laziness, that’s what you’re going to be good at. The second is perhaps more persuasive: Life is unpredictable, and trading a certain amount of time for studying today might not be recouped by the uncertainties of tomorrow. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
We read in the epistle of James (chapter 4), “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
This passage taps into some more fundamental truths than I’m discussing right now, but this timeless wisdom is still true. Tomorrow – and every consecutive day until the exam – is a big question mark. You don’t know when you’re going to need to drive a friend to the airport, or deal with a burst pipe, or break your foot ankle slipping on ice. These unexpected things needn’t even be bad – no one wants to choose between doing well on an exam and seeing a movie or a game with friends. It’s prudent for your own good to do things that you must when you know that you can – and you only ever know about the present.
When Cramming Doesn’t Work
We all probably know that person who can pull off papers at the eleventh hour. I’ve heard legends of one person who began a thesis paper around midnight the day it was due – just going about and asking dorm mates if they had “any books on China” – and got an A. Perhaps some people can absorb and digest information so quickly that they still receive benefit from so compressed a process. Mostly, though, I think that this categorically different kind of act (creating vs. memorizing) demands a different approach.
When the sole object, as above, is mapping your brain to objective, preexisting facts, you can succeed independent of the time you take (because retention is determined more by the techniques you use than anything else). With intellectual creativity, however, different methods are called for. As one professor of mine once said, “Ninety percent of learning is anticipatory stewing.”
The Importance of Creative Stewing
If you’re doing something that involves extensive reading, you need time to get a clear picture of the field in your mind. This means keeping similar concepts distinct and clear in your mind. Too little time could lead you to drawing conclusions based on something that does not, in fact, support your argument, even if it seems to. More time also allows you the chance to see the interaction of people in a field. If one major source’s ideas have become landmark, or rejected, you’ll want to give yourself time to discover other people’s reactions to them.
One of the most critical aspects of this stewing is the time you give yourself to “digest” an idea. Consider that Euclid’s 13 books of geometry are derived from a few common notions (“equals are equal to equals,” etc.), definitions of relevant terms, and five axioms. The implications of these straightforward first principles (“to draw a circle of any center and radius”) fill thirteen books of amazing geometry. Even the very first proposition – given a line segment, to construct an equilateral triangle of side length equal to that segment – might take some serious brain-racking to someone unfamiliar with the beautiful solution.
Given the sorts of ideas we learn about in class, some far-reaching implications lie latent for us to discover. That sort of discovery takes time. It’s also hard to do with composite concepts unless you’ve grasped them, via understanding their components. By “composite,” I mean, made up of more primary, fundamental ideas.
To illustrate the difficulties of grasping composite ideas, I’ll use a math example, because the discipline of mathematics is chock-full of ideas that are expressed with complete certainty, precision, straightforward language, and yet result in incomprehension. Consider the mathematical term, “simple group.” This concept appears in Mathematics and the Imagination, by Kasner and Newman. These authors first say that, “The definition of ‘simple group’ is really so hard that it cannot be given here.”
The authors quickly renege, though, and say, “A simple group is simply a group without any self-conjugate sub-groups – simple, is it not?” When you need to deal with composite concepts, you’d better give yourself enough time to grow familiar with their ingredients so that you can really “grasp” the higher ones.
So What Now?
I hope that this discussion has clarified some of the negative sentiments current about cramming. Whatever the spiritual dimension of the activity – and please do look to that as of first importance – that, and how much cushion you leave yourself to join in unexpected activities with friends – the act itself is hardly toxic.
I strongly believe the retention is most reliably correlated with memory techniques, given which fact – by all means, use memory palaces! When it comes to intellectual creativity – getting scope of disciplines and making informed arguments – giving yourself the largest possible sample size for making discoveries, advertent or inadvertent, is crucial. If you’re in the position of a teacher, though, come up with some way of implementing the art of memory, the Ars Memoria, into curriculum.
As Bob Harris reflected in his book, “How cool would it be for our world . . . if junior-high kids could buzz through the Bill of Rights and major Supreme Court rulings, making the time spent in the classroom more about discussion and understanding?”