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Cramming versus scheduled studying: What’s happening in your brain?

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  • Category Advice Column, Education, Paper Video, Recently, Study Assistance, Study Tips

Have you ever found yourself sitting in an exam or test, knowing how hard you studied the night before, with a question in front of you that you simply just can’t remember the answer to? This happens to everyone, and it has nothing to do with how hard you did or didn’t prepare. What it’s actually all about is how far along the process of encoding memory you had time for. This is why cramming the day before an exam or test can only get you so far. For true mastery that’s about more than passing on the day, you need to learn how to encode the information you’re learning into your long-term memory, and that’s going to take a bit more time. In this article, we’re going to discuss cramming versus long-term study, and what’s going on in your brain along the way.

Step 1 – Sensory memory

This is the very first stage when it comes to successfully encoding and storing information. When it comes to studying information, the two most common senses we usually use are vision and sound. We see the written or diagrammatic information, we hear it being explained to us, or both at the same time.

Sensory memory is tricky because it is mostly there to use and lose information. Let’s think about a maths equation. You see the first line of the equation before you. Your sensory memory holds it in your mind only as long as it takes you to process it and move onto the next step of the equation. Then, it immediately deletes it from your brain. It is normal for sensory memories to last for split seconds before disappearing.

Unless something special happens, that is. If you’re driving and see a stop sign, your sensory memory will hold the stop sign in your mind until you have stopped and then moved on. It will then delete that moment. But if you have a car accident at that stop sign, your sensory memory will pass it on to short-term memory, and your brain will hold onto the memory of that stop sign at that time for a longer period.

The same goes for studying. Cramming is detrimental to sensory memory firstly because it’s tedious, boring and can be stressful. These are not the kinds of conditions your brain looks for when it wants to make something last. You need time and effort to truly move beyond this first step.

Repetition and using multiple senses to learn the same information is your goal. And by repetition, we don’t mean sitting in one spot repeating a sentence over and over until you think you’ll be able to remember it through tomorrow and beyond. When we say repetition, we mean repeated learning of the same subject or topic using different stimuli. Yes, revise your notes from class, but also read blog posts, listen to podcasts, watch videos and (of course) practise past papers. This kind of revision is diverse and makes use of multiple senses, a winning formula for moving what you’re learning into the short-term memory!

Step 2 – Short-term memory

Short really does mean short here. On average, your short-term memory can only hold information for about 15 seconds. Your brain is always trying to optimise, and that means constantly discarding information it doesn’t think it needs.

Short-term memory is often what is used when you are cramming for a test. If you’re trying to remember a list of facts, you’ll probably have found that when you repeat them to yourself later or tomorrow, you’re more likely to remember items from the beginning and end of your study session, but that your recall only gets worse and worse when it comes to what you studied in the middle. This is a sign that the information wasn’t encoded correctly during the short-term memory phase.

Information will stay in your short-term memory as long as you’re consciously holding onto it. From there, it will either be moved to working or long-term memory, or deleted. At the beginning of your cramming session, you will be more alert and more energetic. This will better enable you to encode what you’re learning in a meaningful way with practice, using the senses and being able to connect what you’re learning with what’s already stored in your long-term memory. This information is often successfully stored in long-term memory. Towards the end, when you’re tired, you might just begin repeating the information over and over, keeping it in short-term and working memory until you’re done with it after your exam. And whatever was in the middle, well, that’s probably mostly gone by the time you sit down to write.

In order to move on from short-term memory, you need to allow yourself the time for not only meaningful and sensory stimulation like in the previous step, but you also need the time to build meaningful connections with what’s already in your long-term memory. This involves starting with the basics, and only moving on once you have something solid in your long-term memory to build upon.

Step 4 – Long-term memory


When you think of long-term memory, you probably think of all the things you can remember that have happened personally to you in your life. But that’s only one small part (albeit an important

one). Semantic memory is a form of explicit long-term memory that is based around factual information. And it is explicit because you make the effort to learn it on purpose (unlike biographical memories). When you are studying, you are successful if what you are learning moves from short-term memory into explicit semantic long-term memory.

There is a clue here. For a long time, neuroscientists have been trying to pin down exactly where in the brain semantic long-term memories are stored. And the answer seems to be all over. This has led scientists to believe that within our brains there is a semantic network. And they believe that this is why it’s so important to establish foundations of information and then find ways to link new things we are learning to them. New information doesn’t seem to necessarily be stored close to related information, relying instead on a complex network of connections. In order to recall information correctly from memory, these networks need to be well-used so you can put all the bits and pieces together efficiently to answer a question on a test or exam. These networks also need to exist in the first place, which is why taking time, care and practice is so important in the earlier encoding memory stages we’ve already discussed.


Procedural memory is also a form of explicit long-term memory, indicating that it was learned consciously and on purpose. What makes it different from semantic memory is that it is not about recalling factual information, but about seamlessly using your skills. Let’s continue using the example of a maths equation. You have studied a formula and committed it to long-term memory successfully. On your exam or test day, you will use semantic memory to recall the formula and write it down. But remembering a list of numbers and symbols and writing them down isn’t going to get you all the marks you need. You need to remember how to solve the formula. This is where procedural memory comes in.

As you can imagine, this takes understanding and practice. Once you’ve memorised your formula, you need to practise different versions of actually using it to solve a problem to effectively encode it into procedural memory. Once you can do this extremely easily (almost unconsciously), it becomes a skill and isn’t likely to leave your memory. Procedural memory can encompass anything from drawing a graph correctly to being able to solve an equation containing multiple formulas. These memories are also solidified during sensory and short-term memory. You need to understand the information to ensure it will be encoded correctly (you know, so you don’t find yourself routinely making the same mistake), and through meaningful and varied repetition, so that it forms as many connections within the network as possible, making it easier and easier to recall.

Step 5 – Working memory

A successful working memory is your reward for all the hard work you’ve done. Working memory is often confused with short-term memory, but it is used with short- and long-term memory.

When working memory is used with short-term memory, it will look like repeating a phone number until you have dialled it, and then having it deleted from memory. In the context of an exam or test, it allows you to hold the exam question in your mind until you have answered or solved it, before deleting it.

Basically working memory is information you’re purposefully and actively holding in your mind only while you’re using it. If you have encoded information into your long-term memory correctly, you will easily and quickly be able to retrieve it into your working memory (through the efficient network you have worked so hard to create) and use it to solve a problem or answer a question. It is then returned back to your long-term memory.


When it comes to practising past papers, you are guaranteed greater success during exam or test season. For starters, you are using multiple facets of sensory memory with Paper Video. You are taking in both visual and auditory information with our videos, and our teachers help you establish a foundation to build upon, extending that amazing semantic network that is so important during memory retrieval. You will also be practising past papers, where you will get to use the information you have learned in endless amounts of different questions and scenarios.

If you start working with Paper Video long before your exams, all of the above processes will work effectively, helping you to sit continuously successful exams and tests. Remember, research suggests that you only need 12 hours to study for a single exam or test after encoding the information you need during class and with homework throughout the year. Would you rather spend a sleepless night cramming inefficiently for 12 hours? Or would you rather start 6 weeks before, and only study for a little bit each day for better, longer-lasting memory retention that will last beyond one exam or test, making the next one easier?

We know which option we’d choose. Paper Video is free for 2023 and it’s not too late to start encoding right now!

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