What is the best way to study for a test?

Tammy Rosner
10 September 2018

Above: Image © FatCamera,iStockPhoto.com

Have you ever stayed up late the night before a test or exam, trying to cram that last bit of information into your head?

We’ve all been there. Maybe you thought the information you had to learn would be really simple. Or maybe the exam felt really far away and it just sort of “snuck up on you.” Either way, you may have crammed hoping the information would stick with you until you got through that test. And maybe you actually ended up doing okay on that test.

Many people think that cramming is actually a good study strategy. Some people have convinced themselves that they learn best under pressure. However, researchers in cognitive psychology (the science of how we think) have shown that while cramming may feel like a good strategy, it actually leads to worse memory.

The Spacing Effect

Many people remember information better when it is spaced over time than when it is massed. Massed is the term psychologists use for information that has been “crammed.” This phenomenon is called the spacing effect.

Many researchers have studied the spacing effect. For example, one set of researchers asked people to learn Spanish translations of English words. Some people studied these words in one long session, as if they were cramming. This was the massed session. Other people studied these words in many short sessions across multiple days. This was the spaced session.

In the sessions, researchers showed participants flashcards with English words. Participants had to translate the cards into Spanish. The researchers removed the words that the people translated correctly. They showed people the correct translations for the words they got wrong, then asked them to re-study them. This continued until people correctly translated all words from English to Spanish. After going through the full stack, people in the massed session went through it again. People in the spaced sessions did this over a few days.

Researchers found that the people in the single massed session seemed to be learning more than the people in the spaced sessions. Those in the massed session generally needed less reminders of the translations than those in the spaced sessions. They also made fewer mistakes while studying.

But on a final test, people who studied across multiple days scored about 30% better than people who studied in a single session. That could be the difference between an A and a D on a test!

Eight years later, some of these same people were given the same test. Even then, the spacing effect seemed to work! People that had had spaced study sessions scored 10% higher on a test than those that had studied in a crammed session.

Did you know? Researchers have found that cramming can be worse than reading something only once!

What to do if you’re short on time

What if you don't have time to study over many days? What if you're busy with after-school activities or studying for other tests? Or what if you simply forgot about the test until the day before?

You can still spread your studying out over the time you have. Researchers have found that people remember information better when it is spaced out over a study session rather than lumped together.

For example, in one experiment, people were asked to learn pairs of words (such as TREE-BRANCH). These people learned some pairs in massed sessions, where they saw the words over and over. They learned other word pairs in spaced sessions, where they saw other word pairs separating the repetitions.

Participants then saw one word and had to remember its pair. For example, they would see TREE and have to remember BRANCH. People remembered the word pairs they learned in spaced sessions better than word pairs they learned in massed sessions.

Thinking about learning

I know what you’re probably thinking at this point: “But when I study, I learn better when I cram!” Researchers have also looked at how people think about their own learning. This process is called metacognition.

In metacognition experiments, researchers ask people who are in the middle of studying to rate how likely it is they will remember information for a later memory test. In general, researchers have shown:

  1. that people expect to remember spaced and massed information equally well, or
  2. that people even expect to remember massed information better than spaced information.

This is, of course, the opposite of what people’s final tests show! So what does this suggest?

Well, people are not great at metacognition when it comes to the spacing effect. We feel as though cramming helps us learn better than spaced studying. But as you’ve seen, we actually learn better when we space our studying over time.

Did you know? The spacing effect doesn’t just apply to studying for a test. It can also help with learning motor skills, such as typing or throwing bean bags!

Why do we learn better with spaced learning than massed learning?

One possibility is that when information is massed, our brains are tricked into thinking we already know the information we’re trying to learn. If you immediately repeat information, you might feel as if you already know it. And if you already know something, then why bother re-learning it?

Cramming may make you feel like you’re learning, since it will make the information feel familiar. But that same feeling may stop you from learning the information well!

So how should I study?

One of the best ways to study for a test is to study in small chunks throughout the term. Reviewing and summarizing your notes for a class every week can help you remember course content well. If you don’t have time to do that, study a little every day the week before a test or exam.

Even while you’re studying, make sure to space out information. Instead of repeating a term to yourself over and over again, space those repetitions out with other information you need to learn. And finally, even if you feel as though spaced studying isn’t helping, remember that people generally are not great at judging their own learning. You may be learning more than you think you are!

Now that you know more about how we learn, hopefully you can make information stick for your final exams... and for years to come afterwards!

Want to learn more about this Let’s Talk Science volunteer’s research? Click here to read Tammy Rosner’s research profile.

Let’s talk about it

  • Can you think of a time in your life when you learned something in a massed session? How well do you remember it now?
  • Can you think of a time in your life when you learned something in a spaced session? How well do you remember it now?
  • Do you usually study in massed sessions, spaced sessions, or both? If both, have you noticed a difference in your marks when you use each of the two methods?
  • Think about tests or exams coming up this week, month or semester. Can you schedule spaced study sessions for these tests or exams?

Learn More

Learn How to Study Using...Spaced Practice (2018) The Learning Scientist

Comparing Typical (Crammed) Learning vs. Spaced Learning (2015) Shift Disruptive Learning

The Learning to Learn Series (2018) The University of Arizona


Maintenance of knowledge: Questions about memory we forgot to ask (1979) Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

Retention of Spanish Vocabulary Over 8 Years (1987) Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition

The spacing effect depends on an encoding deficit, retrieval, and time in working memory: evidence from once-presented words (1998) Memory

When Forgetting Helps Memory : An Analysis of Repetition Effects (1982) Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior

Spacing and lag effects in free recall of pure lists (2005) Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Metacognition and the spacing effect: The role of repetition, feedback, and instruction on judgments of learning for massed and spaced rehearsal (2012) Metacognition and Learning

The influence of length and frequency of training session on the rate of learning to type (1978) Ergonomics

Spacing one's study: Evidence for a metacognitive control strategy (2004) Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition

Metacognition in Motor Learning (2001) Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition

Remembering “primed” words: A counter-intuitive effect of repetition on recognition memory(2018) Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Specific and varied practice of motor skill (1978) Perceptual and Motor Skills

Tammy Rosner

tammy rosner

After being in school for years (I would have just finished the equivalent of grade 22!) I recently completed my PhD in cognitive psychology at McMaster University. I have always been curious about how the human brain works, and very much enjoyed my time researching how we are able to pay attention to and remember information. Since graduating, I have started a job as a data analyst at the University of Toronto, where I am looking at information that will help professors understand what areas of teaching they are good at and how to be even better teachers. I spend most of my spare time listening to podcasts and crocheting, playing board games, exercising, and of course, volunteering with Let's Talk Science! I love getting the chance to share my passion for science with kids and young adults, and hope to inspire some of you to pursue a STEM career!