Let’s imagine that you’ve waited until the last minute to study for a big test. This is only a hypothetical situation; I know you would never do that. Just pretend with me for a minute. The test is tomorrow, and you’ve done nothing to prepare other than attend class and complete the homework.
What can you do at the last minute? Is it even worth studying this late in the game? Should you panic? Should you give up and accept failure?
In order, the answers to those questions are: Many things, Yes, No, and No.
Okay, obviously cramming isn’t ideal. You probably can’t learn everything that’s going to be on the test, and anything complicated that you don’t understand yet, well, you’re probably not going to understand it tomorrow either. But that’s okay. Surely you already know something. You’re not starting from zero. And you don’t have to learn everything to get a decent grade.
When you’re cramming, your job is simply to do the best you can with the time that you have. Throw your perfectionism away and get to work. A 77% is better than a 73%, even though they earn the same letter grade. And more significantly, a 59% is far better than a 29%, even though they are both “failing” grades. Remember, the game of school is about points not letter grades.
When you’re cramming, the goal is to make progress. Everything you learn tonight that’s on the test tomorrow will earn you an incrementally higher grade. A little bit of last-minute studying is better than no studying at all. Everything counts.
Now, I said you shouldn’t panic, but I also wouldn’t advise you to calm down. The stress you feel is actually a biological response that’s supposed to help you rise to the occasion.1 Stress can energize you and help you focus.1 And that’s good because cramming is a serious challenge, and you’ll need all the energy and focus you can muster.
Speaking of focus, put your phone in airplane mode and then put it in another room. The last thing you need tonight is distractions.
And you’ll be much more likely to experience the positive aspects of stress if you have some strategies for how to approach the task, so let’s load you up with some best practices.
First up, triage. Pretend you’re at the scene of a terrible car accident with only limited time and resources to save the injured. Some people have only minor injuries, and they’ll be fine on their own. Others are in serious need of help, and you could save them if you gave them your time and attention. And then there are those who are, sadly, too badly hurt for you to rescue. Giving them any of your precious time would be a waste. You should focus on the second group.
Sorry for the gruesome image; that was just a metaphor. I was really talking about the content that’s on tomorrow’s big test. Some of the ideas you know decently well, and you’ll be okay tomorrow without any further preparation. Other ideas are things that will take serious time and energy to learn, but you could learn them tonight if you gave them your attention. And lastly, there are ideas that will be on tomorrow’s test that you have no hope of learning tonight. These must be ignored. Why? Because they’ll only distract you from that second group – the content you actually have time to learn.
But what if the second group has too many topics to learn in the time you have? How do you choose? Focus on the biggest, most important topic. What did the teacher spend a great deal of time on? Were there multiple homework assignments about a single topic? Is it mentioned in the introduction or conclusion of the chapter? If so, your best bet is to start there.
Okay, for any topic you’re going to tackle, the first objective is to get an overview. Start with the summary, if one is provided. If there isn’t one, quickly see if you can find one online. Learning the details will come easier after you’ve learned the basics.2 And if you’re really low on time, maybe the summary is all you’ll get to, and that’s better than nothing.
Do not, I repeat, do not study by passively skimming text or passively watching videos.2 If you’re going to remember anything from your cramming session it’s going to be because you took action. Effortful studying takes energy, and as such, it helps convince your brain that what you’re studying is worth devoting energy to. It convinces your brain to care, which helps form memories.
So grab some paper, pick up a pen or pencil, and make written product. Annotate, paraphrase, and take notes. Draw pictures, diagrams, and mind maps.
But Chris, the test is tomorrow, so I’ll never look at these notes again!
I know. You’re not making all this written product as a reference for later; you’re making it because the act of making it helps you remember it, even if you never look at it again.2 The more you write, the more you learn.
You should also be verbalizing what you’re studying, especially if it involves vocabulary or something like Spanish verb conjugations. Speaking takes effort and involves more senses, so that makes better memories.
And you should be connecting words to images. We remember far more when there’s a picture to go with the words.3
So now you’ve spent 20 minutes learning one of the main concepts on the test tomorrow. Do you think you have it down? Prove it. If there’s a practice test on the topic you’ve just learned, take it. If there isn’t, no problem, you can probably find one on Google or just make up your own practice test.
How much can you remember if you just pull out a blank sheet of paper and start writing? How well can you teach it to someone else? Talk yourself through it while you’re doing the dishes or walking the dog or brushing your teeth. How much do you remember when you’re not looking at notes? This sort of mental recall practice can be done anywhere.
Self-testing is a critical part of memory formation.2 By trying to recall the ideas you were just studying, you’re making it clear to your brain that it will be asked to remember the material.
Anything you got wrong or forgot during your little practice quiz is a cue that more written product for that is needed. Don’t just look at the right answer and say ”Oh yeah!” Write your wrongs.
Repeat to Remember
Okay, so you’ve tackled a topic and you’ve got it down. Find some way to revisit that topic two more times before your test. These revisits don’t have to be long. They can be just a few minutes of reengaging with the material.
But don’t revisit immediately. Spaced repetition forms memories.2 Several small doses of studying can be more effective than one large dose.2 So go work on some homework or study another concept that’s on tomorrow’s test, and then quiz yourself again.
You could think about what you were learning while you’re drifting off to sleep. You could find a short video to watch during breakfast. You could review your notes on the way to school. Or you could explain the concept to a classmate during lunch (if the test is in the afternoon). Find ways to squeeze in some more repetitions. Make it happen.
Go to bed.
But Chris, there’s so much left to learn!
I know. Too bad. Staying up late into the night isn’t going to help you. Sleep matters.
Memories get consolidated while you sleep, so if you don’t sleep, you won’t remember most of the ideas you just crammed into your head.2 Plus, you need to be awake in all your other classes tomorrow. Live to learn another day.
Prepare for a Brain Dump
Whatever is the hardest idea, vocab word, or formula to remember, be reviewing it right up until the moment your teacher has you put away your papers. Then, keep repeating it to yourself in your head. Then, as soon as you receive the test, write that idea/vocab word/formula on the top of the test.
This is called a “brain dump.” It ensures that you won’t forget that one thing, and it frees up whatever brainpower was being devoted to holding onto the information. It is also an enormous emotional relief to get it written onto the test.
Because you waited until the last minute, you won’t be fully ready for the test. It’s going to be hard, and it’s not going to be fun. Please keep in mind that it’s normal to feel test anxiety when you’re unprepared. Just do the best you can with what you know.
Lastly, when you’re taking the test, don’t finish early. Use all the time you’ve got. Sometimes you’ll find that one part of the test will provide clues about answers on a different part of the test. Leave nothing blank. Answer everything as completely and thoroughly as possible, even if it’s probably wrong. Guess when you have to and trust your instincts. If it’s math, show your work in hopes of earning partial credit.
Stay in the trenches and work as hard as you can until the buzzer. Finish last.
Good job. You did the best you could with the time you gave yourself. If that was unpleasant, or if you’re disappointed with your grade, you know what to do next time. Start earlier. You won’t regret it.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
He writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Avery, 2015.
2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
3 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.