All students with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) cram for exams, more often than we like to admit. Is cramming a bad thing? The question is irrelevant. Learning to cram efficiently is more important than questioning it. To me, a “cram” means reviewing for an exam — when you know less than half of what is required — in 24 hours or less.
A productive cram session requires some reconnaissance. Ask your professor about the content — will you be tested on terms, themes, concepts, or something else? You may not get a specific answer, but there is no harm in asking.
Next, try to dig up an old exam — many professors post them on the Web. No teacher will recycle an exam verbatim, but most will favor a certain structure. Notice how the test is broken down—by terms, concepts, process, “all of the above.” Once you’ve identified patterns, follow these tips:
Admit your limitations and let them go.
Cramming isn’t the best way to study, but why dwell on that right now? Shame is a great motivator, but let’s leave that to elementary school teachers. When you begin a cram, put the self-loathing aside, acknowledge the fact that you’re starting at a deficit, and move on. Focus on the present, do the best you can, and get through the night. (Check out the sidebar, left, for tips to get through the night.)
Manage your time.
Wipe your day clean of obligations. Spend about half of your allotted time organizing information and the rest on committing it to memory.
Get a broad idea of the exam’s structure. This framework will act as a holding pen, providing a way to organize the material. First, read your syllabus, particularly the course description and headings. What does your instructor say this course is about? Pore over all review sheets that were handed out. If you’re lucky, you may find a section that explicitly outlines the material that will be covered in the exam. Now ask yourself: If you were giving the test, what would you cover?
The trick now is to master the main ideas—nothing more. Skim the textbook — chapter summaries tell you the terms, main ideas, and primary theories covered. Record anything that stands out visually (in boldface or italic type).
Review your notes, marking all information that appeared in a chapter summary. Ask classmates for their opinions about the most important concepts, events, and data points.
Some rules of thumb: If you know the test’s grading breakdown—which sections count the most — spend more time on the most important sections. Go back to your syllabus and focus on the text or concepts that seem to carry the most weight. In the end, go with your gut.
Less is more.
The final challenge is to memorize as much of the important information as possible. Knowing one-third of the material cold is better than having a rough understanding of it all. Choose a manageable chunk of information, and stay with it until it is memorized. Then move on. Trust me. This risk pays off at exam time.
This article comes from the Spring 2008 issue of ADDitude.
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