Studying – Spacing vs Cramming


By Helga Bohn

you are studying, I mean if you want to study and suffer from procrastination this might be useful to read.

Once you get around to studying, that is after you have sent ten messages, received none, looked at that person’s profile ten times, checked the bathroom, and cleaned it again, your time for studying has now run out. Now that you have less time available you are under the necessary stress to perform. But will you? I have heard the comment we all need stress to perform and yes it may be useful in some situations. The truth is that some mechanisms are at play, that we are procrastinating in the first place, but believing that we can study all that material in less than a month is just bad judgment of our own capacity. A gremlin has skewed our judgment, and it’s a cognitive bias where we habitually underestimate the time that something will actually take. I suffer from that all the time.

Thought you could catch up over the weekend with all the studying? Think again! You might only have finished half of it come Sunday night. You get to fail the subject not because you are not capable, just because you did not have enough time! Argh! But I see it like this, the problem that we face as procrastinators is that you have run out of time to apply all the tricks of studying. So, for the next season of studies, take note of proven and researched insights in the art of studying. Spacing versus cramming? Spacing wins! The space you leave between study times actually enhances recall and you will be able to learn more details around the topic! Researchers (Bjork & others) have found that when you space your studies, you have to recall from memory what you have learnt and that actually helps you learn. Even better, the more you struggle to recall your previous learning the more you are learning. The best thing about spacing your studies is that with each learning session your brain has to recall, and re-absorb the material. This way you are able to enrich what you learnt last time. More details will stick.

Now it should also make sense to you why working through previous exam papers is so important. Make sure you test yourself before the real exams. Regularly checking whether you actually master the material gives you exactly the effect of spacing. You have to recall what you have learnt, and as you struggle the most difficult areas that you are not master of will appear. When you then take to the books, revise the areas where there are gaps, your learning will be more effective. But obviously you will only have time to go through the old exam papers if you have become a master of procrastination. One thing you need to be clear in your mind about is that we are creatures of habit.

Once you start studying and applying your mind consistently to your studies you will win over procrastination. Someone shared this story with me about two brothers who met for a traditional sundowner around Christmas time. They were now in their fifties, and the one asked the other one: “How come you achieved so much?” The other returned: “Well, what do you mean? The first one elaborated: “You finished high school, all that whilst dad and mum had separated, you went to university and became a doctor. How did you do that?” The accomplished doctor answered: “Sometimes, you just got to do it! But the trick is – you got to just do it everyday!”

Helga Bohn is an Honors Psychology graduate at Stellenbosch University and is interested in understanding what we need to mobilise for change.


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