Why You Can't Cram For The ACT/SAT

In this post you'll learn why cramming doesn't work for the ACT & SAT.

Why You can't Cram the ACT/SAT!

Picture this: it’s a few days before the SAT or ACT and students are holed up in their bedrooms, or at the kitchen table, surrounded by test prep books and piles of notes. Sound familiar? Cramming is an all too common practice for many students; studies show that over 80% of high school students report procrastinating regularly -- a number that only increases in college.  

While cramming can be somewhat effective for fact-based and retrieval-oriented tests (such as some aspects of the Biology and Chemistry SAT II subject tests), this strategy simply does not work for the SAT and ACT, which require critical thinking skills and interpretation rather than memorization. It’s truly in your best interest to plan ahead and to engage in more effective study habits and practice methods early on in your ACT or SAT preparation.

Why Cramming Is Counterproductive

Cramming may feel more rewarding in the short-term, but it almost always results in more harm than good!

Students who cram often put aside their health, well-being, and long-term academic success in order to frantically prepare for their upcoming tests.  Caffeine-fueled late nights establish irregular sleep patterns—particularly detrimental to teens—depress motor functioning over several days, and lead to irritability and grogginess. These factors all adversely affect test performance. Research from prominent sleep science groups, such as the Adolescent Development Lab at UCLA, has strongly demonstrated that sacrificing sleep in lieu of test preparation is counterproductive.

Cramming impairs analysis and critical thinking, which are vital for success on the ACT and SAT tests. To put it simply: cramming will diminish test-taking skills and strategies that students need to thrive on the ACT or SAT.

Spaced Learning Produces Better Results

Spaced repetition —studying material spaced out over time—consistently helps students retain more information longer and perform better on exams. Students who effectively use this strategy begin studying for their standardized tests several weeks or months before the test date. This gives you adequate time to consolidate important information, which both boosts performance and reduces test anxiety.  

While spaced repetition is a great choice for studying and test-taking, for many students using it in practice is easier said than done.  Spaced repetition requires commitment and good time-management skills, but maturational imbalances in the adolescent brain predispose teens to make decisions that prioritize immediate rewards over long-term gains. Trust me, as a parent who has gone through this process twice with my own kids, I know how frustrating it can be to have to prompt a teen to study. Yet these brief reminders of the “whys” and the longer term benefits that will come from a great ACT or SAT score can help your teen put aside the short-term gratification of hanging out with friends or watching YouTube videos, in favor of these long-term benefits.

General Tips For Using Spaced Learning

Whether you're studying SAT algebraic formulas, ACT punctuation rules, or vocabulary words for a Spanish test, you can use spaced repetition.  As the name itself says, spaced repetition involves repeating what you’re trying to remember spaced out over a period of time.  (It even works for building skills that require muscle “memory” piano practice, sports, and even playing video games.)  

One way to implement this type of learning and studying is by creating flashcards.  Though creating handwritten flashcards is best for retaining material, there are also few good digital flashcard apps such as Quizlet and Brainscape that enable students to create flashcards, take practice quizzes, and access study materials from their phones or other devices. You can  use these sources during spare moments  - waiting for the bus, hanging out before sports practices, or while being driven to extracurricular activities - for items you do really need to memorize during spare moments.  However, flashcards alone won’t be enough for subject mastery.  You’ll still want build your knowledge and understanding and fill in any gaps by meeting with your teacher or working with a tutor, by using high quality review books (more on that in another post), and for the ACT and SAT, by using the College Board and ACT Official practice materials to get used to the test format beforehand.   Then, distributing the practice exams and questions across the months leading up to the test will yield the best results. 

How To Apply Spaced Learning for ACT & SAT Test Prep

  1. Give yourself enough lead time before the test! (I like at least 8-10 weeks.)

  2. Spread out the studying of topics where you have knowledge gaps and revisit (repetition) things that you find tricky more than once.

  3. Create your own handwritten flashcards of math rules or grammar rules, for example.

  4. Test Yourself by alternating timed practice sections and do short ones frequently – but not daily.

  5. Schedule time in your week for this!

Contrary to what some tutors recommend, you do not have to do full practice tests with each practice session in order to benefit. You should, however, try to complete an entire section in one sitting.

An Example:  since both the ACT English and SAT Writing sections are punctuation heavy (and a great sections on which to gain points), you might begin by reading some chapters in The Critical Reader ACT English or SAT Grammar books (hands down the best grammar review books out there).  Then maybe make yourself some flashcards with the punctuation rules and sample sentences.  Quiz yourself from time-to-time.  Then repeat!

It might take some time to get used to working this way, but it will pay off big time in results!  When I recommend a test prep plan, or tutor students one-on-one, this is basically my approach because it works!

Want to learn more about spaced repetition and great study practices?  Here are some of our sources for this blog post compiled by contributor and co-author Katie Suss.

“Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction”   https://www.dartmouth.edu/~cogedlab/pubs/Kang(2016,PIBBS).pdf

“Cramming for a test? Don't do it, say UCLA researchers” http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/cramming-for-a-test-don-t-do-it-237733

Faculty Focus “Why Students Cram for Exams” by: Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D.  https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/why-students-cram-for-exams/

Frontiers in Psychology.  “Spacing Repetitions Over Long Timescales: A Review and a Reconsolidation Explanation”.   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476736/

Scientific American:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/education-why-cramming-gets-a-c/

Popular Science: “Cramming, Not a Long Term Study Strategy”  https://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2008-11/cramming-not-long-term-study-strategy

Distributed Practice in Verbal Recall Tasks: A Review and Quantitative Synthesis http://www.evullab.org/pdf/CepedaPashlerVulWixtedRohrer-PB-2006.pdf

Annual Review of Psychology”  Casey, B. J. (2015). “Beyond simple models of self-control to circuit-based accounts of adolescent behavior. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25089362

Piano Practice Blog: “Spaced Repetition for Musicians”.  http://pianopracticeassistant.com/spaced-repetition/