Stop Cramming the Night Before an Exam! The Psychology of Learning: The Spacing Effect



“Don’t wait until the last minute to start studying,” is a commonly heard phrase by students of all ages, who often fall victim to procrastination, resulting in last-minute cram sessions. Whether it is due to a lack of interest in the subject or other pressing responsibilities, like out-of-school extracurriculars and hobbies, most of us have been in the position of having to cram for a big exam the night before and it was not fun!


Reminding us to not try to study all the material at the last minute is a simple way for teachers to encourage students to practice what is known as the spacing effect. The spacing effect is a term used to describe the idea that spaced-out practice and repetition allow for more efficient learning, in comparison to attempting to absorb great loads of information all at once (Terry 2018). For this reason, it is common for teachers, and even parents, to encourage students to start reviewing the class material periodically, rather than attempting to study all the material the night before a big test.


The spacing effect is a term that has been consistently studied in many scientific fields, including psychology. This means that there is scientific evidence to support it! Through many experiments and studies, scientists have found ways to explain why the spacing effect is so helpful to students. The spacing effect promotes attention and the consolidation of memories, meaning that it allows you to focus and remember the material in a more efficient manner.




Students often encounter themselves sitting at their desks at home, the night before the exam, dreading the long hours of study they have ahead of them. How often have you attempted to start reading the course textbook or class slides and realized that you are not even paying attention to what you’re reading so you have to start again? Or even more obvious, how often do you decide to go on your phone to play video games or text your friends about how boring studying is? Why is it sometimes so hard to focus, especially when you know that you are running out of time to finish studying? How could you avoid this? One of the answers is spaced repetition.


Researchers have proven that people are more likely to give their full attention to educational material encountered in spaced repetition. This is because when information is revisited right after the first time, brains tend to give it less attention due to the sense of familiarity and boredom (Carpenter 2020). This can explain why students sometimes get so bored when studying for very long periods at once. On the other hand, when information is revisited a while after the first time it was studied, the brain doesn’t perceive this information as very familiar, giving it more attention (Carpenter 2020). This means that a little forgetting of the material in between studying sessions might work to your advantage!

Creative light bulb and open book paper cut abstract background. Concept of learning and education.
Creative light bulb and open book paper cut abstract background. Concept of learning and education. Image: Adobe Stock



Now that we have discovered how to increase your attention while studying, what is another issue that students often encounter? Ah ha! How many times have you woken up the next day after a long and tedious study session and realized that you have forgotten some of the content that you crammed the night before? Some of us have wondered how this is possible if you seemed to know the content well yesterday while studying it. Our brains are not as good at remembering great amounts of information being learned at once. How can students overcome this?

Well, studies have shown that spaced repetition actually promotes better retention of information. Studying the same material at different points in time helps with memorization. This is because the brain perceives this as two different learning experiences, allowing the brain to find more ways to retrieve that information in the future (Carpenter 2020). Additionally, when re-studying the content, you allow your brain to actively remember the previous times you had studied that information, which promotes long-term memory retention (Carpenter 2020). Science proves that constantly retrieving the same memories increases the chance that those memories will be remembered longer into the future.




The biggest takeaway should be to stop cramming! So next time you start learning a new topic at school, remember that cramming the night before is less effective than you might think. Instead, start periodically reviewing the material and you will see how much better the results are! I suggest you try changing locations by going to your local library, or the nearest coffee shop, or even switching spots within the comfort of your own home.


Read more articles focused on personal development on our Zealousness blog Personal Development – iN Education Inc. (


Work Cited:

  1. Carpenter, Shana. “Distributed Practice or Spacing Effect.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, April 30, 2020.
  2. Terry, W. Scott. Learning and memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. 5th ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.



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