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Cramming & Emergency Preparedness

At SAOTG, we talk a lot about how we prepare, plan ahead, and stay ahead of the game–but everyone knows what it’s like to cram for a sudden deadline or on one of those projects that managed to slip through the cracks. The whole point of our system is to be able to plan for 80% of life, so the 20% that’s unplanned is easier to control.

It’s like using a fire extinguisher: Nobody wants a fire, but if you have to break the glass, you’d better know how to use the extinguisher. When we’re working with students, we never want to be in crisis mode, but it happens. So when it’s Sunday afternoon and your student is freaking out about a test on Monday morning, what do you do? There are a few strategies we’ve come up with to do the best work possible between a rock and a hard place.

  1. Most importantly, Don’t Panic. Assuming a student has been keeping up with most of the classes and homework (remember what I said about planning for 80%?) there’s no reason to bomb the test. In order to do the upcoming steps well, you’ve got to take a deep breath first — No, seriously, take a deep breath. Intentional breathing floods your body with oxygen and lowers your heart rate, decreasing your stress levels and increasing your brain function. While you’re at it, drink a glass of water for the same effects.

  2. Next, Work Efficiently. Last minute studying is effectively a crash course in our entire method, so students have to be organized (have all the materials they need for the test), study in the right situation (upright, well-lit, and tidy), and be efficient (we’ll get to that in a minute).

  3. Finally, Get Some Sleep. It’s tempting to look at the early-AM before school as an opportunity for “catch up” time, but studies have shown time and again that you have to get at least some sleep to retain knowledge and do your best work the next day. There are diminishing returns when it comes to cramming and sleep. We recommend aiming for at least 6 hours in these situations.

This strategy will serve you well any time you have a lot of information to process in a short time, even if it’s a business presentation instead of a chemistry unit test. You know how much we love macro skills! But if we’re talking about macro skills, let’s refresh exactly which ones students will need for efficiency:

  1. Dissect: I’m not saying we can’t work miracles, but even our methods won’t let you learn an entire textbook in a night. Students have to apply the Pareto principle again here; about 80% of test questions come from 20% of the material studied. This means students have to first dissect their materials into core concepts.

    Some teachers make study guides for tests, but if not, don’t fret. Students just need to find the ideas that line up with class notes and what the teacher focused on in class–most teachers don’t test on things that they don’t talk about. Another easy way to find what matters to the teacher is what they asked about on homework and quizzes. Teachers want to work efficiently, so they’ll often recycle questions from past work—quizzes can be ready-made study guides for students!

  2. Select: Now the student will have a study guide for the test, even if the teacher didn’t supply one. Just like any study guide, the next step is to select what to focus on—so have the students scratch off all the concepts they know off the top of their head. Sometimes this will be just a few things, but sometimes students will find that they understand a lot more than they realized. A good rule of thumb is that they should be able to explain the concept to someone else in simple language. If you can’t teach it, you don’t know it well enough.

    This allows them to spend their mental energy only on what’s necessary. You wouldn’t throw your whole wardrobe into the laundry just to get a few shirts clean, would you? Same goes for last-minute studying: don’t waste valuable mental energy on things you already know.

  3. Study: We’ve gone over study skills in several other posts, but they all apply here. Study vocab with flashcards (always putting aside cards that you get right the first time). Read about a concept, visualize it, then try to explain it out loud without looking at the material. Remember, students should not just read over the material and call that studying—it’s possibly the least effective way of “studying” out there. Do you learn how to ride a bike by watching someone else? What about swimming? Passive observation of material does not equal retention. Students must engage with the material to master it.

  4. Test: One of the biggest mistakes students make when cramming is not putting themselves in a test situation before they go to class. Testing over concepts won’t always be possible or convenient, but it’s a great way to round out a student’s study session. Testing can be as simple as having someone ask them to explain concepts or define vocabulary, or it can be as much as looking up sample questions or re-taking past quizzes (only using the questions on topics they’re working on, of course).

At the end of the day, we want students to have at least a day—but preferably days—to prepare for an exam. However, we understand that every student makes mistakes. In these moments of crisis, we want students to have a system, a bank of strategies, that they can depend upon. For more helpful tips on learning new information, check out our other blogs. Better yet, find an academic coach to help your student develop his or her own arsenal of learning strategies. Head over to our service page to apply!

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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