This is a contribution by Lucy Wyndham.
The college test season is upon us with the first ACT tests in the bag and the next set of papers available to take on April 14th. After years of dominance the numbers of students taking the SAT has fallen behind the ACT, and now more than two million students take the tests. With the rise in numbers, the need to do better than your peers is greater than ever.
Why cramming means nothing
Revision is, for many, a misnomer. To revise means to revisit what is already known. If you are having to do late-night cramming sessions before a test don’t kid yourself that you are revising. Cramming is the stuffing of facts into the short-term memory in the hope that they will be the right things needed on the examination. The ACT and its rival SAT do not check facts but require you to have an understanding of the topics that you can apply in practical ways. There is nothing wrong with revisiting older learning in the weeks running up to a test but this will only truly help you if you knew and understood the topics before revising. A far better use of your time is to ensure you learn and understand every topic as it is taught and frequently revisit it but not to refresh your knowledge but instead to insert new learning into a growing framework of understanding.
Raw learning is sometimes far more important
If, however, you have blocks of information or key equations that just won’t stick there are no shortcuts to memorizing them you’ll have to go old school. When you learned to read and write the only way to make it stick was to do it over and over again. Flash cards, memory games and the old fashioned mainstay of just writing it out repeatedly are the only way that really work. Parrot-fashion learning has fallen out of fashion (and quite rightly with understanding being fundamentally more important) but when it comes to raw, powerful, intense recall there is nothing that beats it. Remember that actors learn lines by reading them out over and over again. Doctors learn medicine and lawyers recall cases through flashcards – it may seem childish but it works.
Remember that practice makes perfect
You’ve put the effort in and solidly learned the key facts through repetition. You’ve stalwartly taken this knowledge and transformed it into understanding through mind-maps and deeper reading… so are you ready for the big day? Not in the least.
Understanding and deeper learning requires cognitive conflict and quite frankly you need to be sure that your understanding is correct. From a much more practical standpoint you also need to become intimately familiar with the way in which you will be tested on your understanding. There is no substitute in the world for taking past examination papers, and with free ACT practice papers available on the internet, that’s more easier than ever. Revision requires knowledge and understanding; not just the knowledge and understanding you are revisiting but a clear knowledge of what you do not know properly and this can only be determined through testing.
Didn’t you get the message? There is no final cramming session. There is no shortcut to success. Revisit, redraft, flashcard and memorise as you go. Link concepts together and read deeper. Understand rather than just learn. And then test yourself over and over again.