Procrastination, Flash Cards, and Cramming

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Another random family photo. I wanna party with these guys!
Another random family photo. I wanna party with these guys!

I recently received an email from one of my students with several great questions. I thought these issues, and their answers, might benefit everyone.

Hi Cody,

Some study issues that I have noticed that I have is not in how I study but when I study.  I have a horrible habit of procrastinating and only studying a minimal amount at the last minute…. Now, I will not say I have made bad grades by doing this, and actually much to the chagrin of my peers I always am one of the top scores in the class and normally manage an A in the course….

I’m with ya’. I used the same technique when I was an undergrad, back when the earth’s crust was still hardening. But–Danger Will Robinson!!!–The procrastinate and cram technique has several killer flaws, which eventually catch (and sink) even the brightest students.

First, sooner or later you’ll encounter a class where this just won’t work. The will be too little, too late, and you’ll crash and burn. Been there, done that.

Second, researchers note that most chronic procrastinators (“Hi … My name is Cody, and I’m a Chronic Procrastinator.”) claim to work better under pressure, however university studies show that this is  a load of … equine waste nuggets. Purty much everyone does better work when they don’t cram. Jealous classmates may, even now, be plotting your demise because of your easy slide into great grades, but what opportunities have you missed out on by not doing your best? You’ll never know. Why settle for good when you could be ex-frakkin-ceptional?

Finally, cramming puts info in your short-term memory. That might allow you to ace a test tomorrow, but what about the second half of the course next semester? By then, that hard-won knowledge will have transmuted into so much psychic sludge, and you’ll have to relearn it. You are actually costing yourself time (not to mention stress) by procrastinating and cramming.

I’ve posted quite a bit on procrastination and how to overcome it. Here’s another useful series on ways college students work to hard; cramming tops the list.

Although I have started putting your mnemonic/visualization technique to use, I just have a hard time forcing myself to start studying in the first place.  Do you have any tips for making studying more, dare I say it, “fun”?  Or at any case, at least to help me get on a schedule to study a little each day.

Check out this series of posts on Motivation Tricks For The Sluggish Student. Ask and you shall receive.

I really like the flash card idea on the staggered schedule, could you maybe provide an example of a flash card in class or point me to where I can see one style you would recommend.  I know you went over this in class and said to use different colored flash cards, have a definition, have a use in a sentence, etc.  I think it is going to be difficult for me to actually sit down and create all of these flash cards, not necessarily use them, but creating them will be a chore.  Perhaps, is there a set of premade cards that you would recommend?

Flash card 'zamples. Green for positive connotation words, orange for negative.
Flash card 'zamples. Green for positive connotation words, orange for negative.

Making your own flash cards saves you time! I know that looking the word up in a good dictionary, summing it up to a short definition, writing several sentences with it, coming up with a mnemonic/memory trick, and (finally) putting the word on one side of the flash card and the short summary on the other side can take you five to ten minutes per word, but this is the fastest and most effective way to learn hundreds of gnarly vocabulary words and still be able to recall them months later (at least when combined with the stack review system). The extra time you’ll spend up front will be more than made up for because you won’t need to review it nearly as much later!

Many people rely on store-bought flash cards. (I mean, heck-fire, if we’re spendin’ money on ’em, they must be effective, right?) They allow us to feel like we’re studying, but in many cases their definitions don’t give a full understanding of the word. I’ve seen students go down in fiery fragments again and again because they didn’t believe me on this. (You can trust me; I’m on the internet.) They memorize hundreds of words and too-short definitions from some GRE or SAT book only to find they don’t understand the words well enough to actually answer the GRE or SAT questions correctly.

The store-bought cards with mnemonics have the same shortcoming; insufficient understanding. Moreover, the mnemonics you create yourself are MUCH more memorable (a useful quality in a mnemonic) than using someone else’s. That means less review for you, which means less time studying!

I’m lazy. That’s why I found these methods in the first place. I have consistently found that my method, while still a lot of work, is the quickest, easiest way to memorize large amounts of material and know it well enough to ace the test.