Cramming is indisputable proof of the superficiality of most classrooms in America


Marion Brady says:

The Procedure: 1. Take notes during lectures, and hi-lite key sentences in the textbook. 2. Before a big test, load the notes and hi-lited passages into short-term memory. 3. Take the test. 4. Flush short-term memory and prepare for its re-use.

The Procedure, of course, is called “cramming.” Do it well and it leads steadily up the academic ladder.

But here’s a question: Does The Procedure have anything do with educating?

Learning – real LEARNING – starts when, for whatever reason, the learner wants it to start. It proceeds if the aim is clear and what’s being learned connects logically and solidly to existing knowledge. It’s strengthened when mistakes are made, clarifying the potential and limitations of the new knowledge. It’s reinforced when it’s put to frequent, immediate, meaningful, real-world use. It becomes permanent when it’s made part of the learner’s organized, consciously known “master” structure of knowledge.

Slow down for a moment and think about it. Cramming is indisputable proof of the superficiality and inefficiency – even the failure – of what’s going on in most classrooms across America. What’s crammed wasn’t learned or there would be no need to cram; what’s crammed isn’t learned or it wouldn’t be forgotten.

In the real world, where it counts, the gap between crammers and learners is vast, and tends to widen over time. Unfortunately, the thus-far-successful “reform” effort to cover the standard material at a standard pace, and replace teacher judgment with machine-scored standardized tests has further institutionalized cramming and hidden the failure its use proves.


We’ve been doing a lot of this over the past week as my daughter prepares for her AP U.S. History semester exam (100 multiple choice questions in 90 minutes). I hate it…

Image credit: Cram time (winter+spring), Svein Halvor Halvorsen

6 Responses to “Cramming is indisputable proof of the superficiality of most classrooms in America”

  1. Come’on, Scott. It’s not about learning, it’s about determining whether a person is willing to conform to the system. It’s how society protects the status quo. That’s what I taught my kids. Benefits and risks to being both an accepting societal member and a rebel. Doug

  2. As a Principal and fellow parent of an APUSH student, please allow me to say: I second this, enthusiastically. APUSH is the worst, and it is characteristic of Social Studies instruction, in which cramming is endemic.

  3. I had a friend in college who called it “bulimic studying”, which I always thought was pretty apt.

  4. While I agree if the class is structured this way then this behavior could be seen as “evidence” I think this could be a little simplistic. For example in a science class there are plenty of instances where even authentic activities and assessments require knowledge of rather mundane bodies of information as a basis. For example – memorizing the structure and function of organelles would be required if you were then going to give students a variety of “objects” to observe under a microscope and a range of results to chemical tests and then ask them to provide evidence that the objects were animal, plant, prokaryotic, eukaryotic, viral, or bacterial in nature. “Cramming” would be a way to gain that information that you were then going to need the next day.

  5. In every game there is a way to exploit the system. The education game is no different. There is a way to play the game that is rich and fulfilling and the experience the game designer intended. There is also the min/max’ing player who wants to beat the game with as little effort as possible. When you have a diverse pool of players, you will have games played in different ways.

  6. I’ve been preaching this gospel for years. One of the signs I have on the wall of my classroom says:

    Memorization means “I promise to forget.” When you understand, you will remember.

    All of the assessments I give are open book/notes/whatever, and many of them are taken in groups.

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