Professor studies ways to reduce time spent cramming for exams

Dr. Doug Rohrer is an associate professor in USF’s Department of Psychology who conducts research on memory and learning processes.

In collaboration with Harold Pashler of the University of California at San Diego, Rohrer has recently published an article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science titled “Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time.” The research focused on how subjects could retain more material without increasing the time spent studying.

Oracle: Why did you decide to focus your research on learning processes?

Doug Rohrer: Over the last 20 or 30 years, there has been quite a bit of education research, but most of it has not been very empirical or experimental. That is, subjects are not randomly assigned to one kind of strategy or the other. Therefore, because there is no true manipulation, all we have are correlations that don’t show causation.

O: One of your studies has found that learning retention can be increased without actually increasing the amount of time spent studying. How can students achieve this?

DR: Well, that’s a good question, and the answer depends on what your ultimate goal is. If you only care to do well on an exam, and you have no interest in remembering that information later, for, say, a cumulative exam … then there’s nothing wrong with waiting until the last minute. On the other hand, if you do wish to remember that material for a very long time, it is far better to distribute (study time) across a period of time, and not just several days, but preferably at least a month.

O: Does your research completely discredit the use of last minute “cram sessions”?

DR: My work and other people’s work on distributive practice strongly suggests that last-minute cramming is a very poor way to achieve long term retention. By the way, it’s been known for more than a hundred years that distributive practice is better than massing or cramming – that wasn’t my contribution at all. Instead, our work showed that the amount of spacing matters. That is, our data suggests that distributing your work across several days is not nearly as good as distributing your work across a month. So, our (contribution) concerns the gap, or the extent to which your learning was distributed.

O: What are some ways we could change the education system in order to maximize student learning?

DR: If long-term retention is the goal, then as a first principle, instructors need to require some distributive practice. For example, a lot of courses do not require cumulative exams, and the lack of cumulative exams essentially invites students to do last-minute cramming. Other kinds of curriculum practice that are not ideal include these very intensive courses. There are some schools that offer a foreign language course in just two weeks. Likewise, summer school courses … are maybe not the best way to achieve long-term retention because the entire course is squeezed into such a brief period.

O: One of the terms you use in your article is “over-learning.” How does this term apply to the learning process?

DR: Over-learning is a term that describes any study beyond the point of mastery. Traditionally, educators have argued that over-learning boosts long-term retention, that is, it protects you from forgetting. Some of the studies that we have done have shown that, in the long run, over-learning is very inefficient. That is, you get very little bang for your buck, and you would be far better off to delay that additional study to a different session or a different day. So, again, we are not suggesting that people study less, rather that they distribute the different kinds of material.