Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

December 13, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsScience Culture

Does cramming work?

The end of the semester is slowly approaching, a fact that means that the final few rounds of exams are almost upon us. While every professor wants their students to thoroughly study for each of their classes, there just isn’t enough time to appropriately do so for every exam. In response, students near and far employ a method that works like a GPA Band-Aid: cramming.

Many instructors, from high school teachers to professors, have explained that this isn’t the way to go. You may be able to pass the exam by last-minute cramming, but, chances are, that the information won’t be retained long term. The explanation for this requires a conversation about memory and the brain.

The brain is the ridiculously complex organ responsible for the overall coordinated function of the body. In order to accomplish the millions of tasks that it’s responsible for, it is organized into different structures that have different purposes.

There are four lobes: the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes. The frontal lobe is largely responsible for reasoning and movement. The parietal lobe processes sensory information. The occipital lobe is vital for interpreting visual information as well as recognizing objects, colors and words. Last, but not least, is the temporal lobe, which is located in the bottom part of your brain near your ears. The temporal lobe interprets auditory information and is vital for forming memories.

There are many regions within these lobes that serve a variety of functions, and, further, there are several that deal with memory specifically. I’m going to focus on the horseshoe or seahorse-shaped structure within the temporal lobe called the hippocampus.

“Hippos” means horse in Latin, and “kampos” means sea monster. Put the root words together and you get hippocampus, which you can take to mean the Greek mythological beast, the genus name of the seahorse or the similarly-shaped structure of the brain.

If you opt for the neurological definition, the hippocampus serves several vital functions regarding memory. It helps process declarative memories, those related to facts and events, and spatial memories, such as a bus route. Secondly, it is the location where short-term memories become long-term memories, which are then stored elsewhere. And finally, this is one of the few areas where nerve cells are developed.

So, the hippocampus is the brain’s one-stop shop for memory, especially regarding studying. A drawback of particular relevance to the college student is that this structure is impaired by stress. When experiencing stress, we produce specific hormones that impact the brain and saturate the hippocampus in a way that can actually decrease its mass over time. Because we often cram under stressful conditions, it makes the likelihood of this information being successfully stored in the longterm less likely.

Overall, the best way to study for an exam is to work with the information in multiple sessions to create more bridges and links in your mind. However, if cramming is necessary, then the least you can do is get some sleep — to not only reduce your stress but to also reach the sleep phases where memory consolidation occurs. Consolidation takes place during all three sleep stages, where connections are strengthened and memories are transferred to different regions of the brain, a process that makes sleep vital for students.