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We’ve all been there.

It’s the night before a big exam and it becomes painfully obvious you are underprepared. We’re not talking about the last minute jitters of a perfectionist who has kept up with their studying. (That person may simply need to give the material one final review or get a couple of questions answered.) No, this is a situation where a few weeks of readings, practice drills and other assignments were neglected — regardless of whether the cause was your own procrastination or because life truly threw you some curve balls.

That leaves only three options — beg and plead with your teacher or professor for extra time (generally not a winning strategy), study for a half hour and hope for the best (good luck with that one), or cram.

blogcramphotoHey, cramming isn’t so bad, right? It’s just 4 or 6 or 10 hours of concentrated study. And by tomorrow at the same time, it will be over. Most of us have heard the admonitions against cramming — basically that it doesn’t work that well. Yet, faced with the reality that we are not ready for the exam, ‘tis better to cram than not to cram. And sometimes we’re able to cheat the Test Reaper entirely with grades that are as good as usual.

But while we may be able to salvage a decent grade with a lengthy, intense night or two of studying, research has demonstrated that it’s a poor long-term learning strategy, according to Cheryl Durwin, assistant chairwoman of Southern’s Psychology Department. The reason has to do with the physiology of how the brain works.

Durwin says that when we learn, the information first enters sensory memory. But only that information that we pay attention to and process in some way will get remembered and stored in our working memory. The working memory is what we rely on for tomorrow’s test. “When students cram, they try to stuff too much information into working memory, which typically holds only 5 to 9 chunks of information before it becomes overloaded,” Durwin says.

But for long-term learning — the kind needed for cumulative final exams, future courses and life skills — cramming fares even more poorly. To truly retain what we learn for the long run, the information must be stored in our long-term memory. And that just doesn’t happen well when we study something for 24 or 48 hours, and then stop rehearsing it, as we commonly do after a test. And soon the information is lost from the shorter-term working memory.

“A better approach is to use distributed practice — studying over an extended period of time,” Durwin says. “Break up material into small, manageable parts and study one part each night. Don’t just read the information. After each section, try to summarize what you read in your own words. Write questions in the margins about things you don’t understand, so you can ask your instructor or look up answers. On the night before the exam, review and quiz yourself. This way, you avoid overloading working memory and important information will be stored in long-term memory for later use.”

OK, you might say, that sounds great for the future. But what about that exam you have coming up in two days? If you must play catch up for a test, Durwin says two days of cramming is better than one. Three days is better than two. She suggests the following to get the most out of cram sessions:

  • Focus first on material that is close to being learned, but not yet mastered. In other words, stuff you almost know, or mostly know. Then, proceed to increasingly more difficult information.
  • Use any study technique that makes information more meaningful. It might involve making flash cards or writing study notes. But be sure to put information into your own words and generate an example that is familiar and relevant to you. This helps prevent merely parroting words and phrases you do not understand.
  • Create organizational tools, such as timelines, concept maps, bubble maps, flowcharts, compare/contrast charts and diagrams. The better you organize information, the more likely you’ll remember it.

What techniques have you found to be useful in preparing for an exam at the 11th hour?

It’s easy to make New Year’s resolutions.

With just a bit of self-reflection, we pronounce that next year is going to be different. We intend to change our lives for the better in some significant way – whether it be losing weight, exercising more, or being a more patient person. “And this time I mean it,” we say. “I’m really going to do it.”

The hard part, as many of you know from experience, is carrying out those resolutions over time. And now that the holidays are over and the new year is here in earnest, our wills are put to the test. The cold weather can deter us from our appointed rounds at the gym or the track. The party after work makes cake or chips seem more appealing than the carrots and celery sticks that we know we should be eating. And if a winter full of snowstorms, ice and hazardous driving conditions comes our way, our patience is bound to be frayed by the time March rolls around.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

So, except for those with an iron will, is it possible to make and actually complete our New Year’s resolutions? Yes, says Jim Mazur, a professor of psychology at Southern. Jim has conducted extensive research over the years with regard to choice making and impulse control.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Develop a strategy. Even though the starting gate has opened for the new year, it’s not too late to make some early-year adjustments, if necessary. You know your weaknesses, so consider options that minimize the chances of succumbing to those temptations. If working out with a friend helps get you out of the house on those cold, dark nights, engage them with the idea. If you have a hard time saving money, consider automatic savings deduction plans.
  • Enlist the help and support or a family member or friend. This person can help prevent you from cheating on your own rules. Knowing that this person is around will make it more difficult for you to eat that second slice of pie.
  • Reward yourself frequently for good performance. This is especially important when you have chosen an ambitious goal. It may seem like losing 20 pounds will take an eternity. But if you break it up into 4-pound segments, it’s psychologically a little easier. Treat yourself to a reward when you reach those intermediate goals. Maybe go to a movie you wanted to see, or buy yourself a new piece of clothing that caught your eye.
  • Set up reminders of your long-term goal. The problem with keeping many resolutions is that the goals are long-term, but the temptations are immediate. The way to help deal with those temptations is to post a picture or other reminder about your long-term goal. If saving for a new car is your resolution, you can put a picture of the car you want in your wallet so you’ll see it every time you go to buy something.
  • Keep systematic records of your performance. This works well for those who have resolutions that can be measured in some way. Seeing your improvement over time can motivate you toward continued progress. It can also help put setbacks into perspective.
  • Expect occasional setbacks, but keep moving forward. Progress rarely happens in a straight line. If you gained back 3 of the 10 pounds you lost over 3 months, you are still ahead of the game. It’s not unusual to fall down a few times, or even many times, in your quest. Those who are truly successful are those who dust themselves off and get back up.

Please share with us any techniques you – or people you know — have deployed in making good on New Year’s resolutions. And remember, even if we only accomplish half of what we set out to do, we are that much better for it.

Good luck!