Cramming and The Absorption Threshold

Last-minute, short-term preparation, otherwise known as cramming, is characterised by a sense of urgency. As your exams draw closer, you will feel greater pressure to rush your preparation. Especially if you feel like there isn't enough time left.

Successful cramming is about continuing to work efficiently without letting the rush lead you down the path of panic and poor decisions. Remember that the best preparation strategy will always focus on maximising productivity. This doesn't change when you are under time pressure. You have to prioritise the tasks and material that will increase your exam score by the most.

The Absorption Threshold

When you are under time pressure, there can be a very strong temptation to cover all exam material as quickly as possible. This is the biggest mistake you can make while cramming. By doing this you may see everything, but you will probably not remember anything.

In order to absorb any individual item of information, you need to review that item for long enough that it reliably persists in your memory. Let us call this length of time the absorption threshold. It will vary depending on the complexity of what you’re absorbing and your ability to memorise information.

If you don’t review a particular item deeply enough, you are unlikely to remember it to a useful enough extent to be able to reproduce it during an exam. So unless you hit the absorption threshold, you will have wasted your time cramming that information.

It is better for you to cram a smaller amount of exam material properly than to skim over all of it. If you are truly racing against the clock, you must take risks and make compromises. If the risks are well calculated, they will usually pay off.