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We know that "cramming" - starting one's study of material the day before the relevant exam - is not an effective study method. Ideally, such studying starts days in advance.

My question is, how many days in advance should one begin studying for a final exam to provide optimum retention of the material?

closed as off-topic by Ric, Anonymous Mathematician, scaaahu, David Richerby, Wrzlprmft May 4 '16 at 7:05

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  • "Questions about problems facing undergraduate students are off-topic unless they can also apply to graduate or post-graduate academicians as described in What topics can I ask about here?" – Ric, Anonymous Mathematician, scaaahu
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    My answer is "it depends"! Some students need to study days in advance, some need only to skim the materials few hours before an exam! – The Guy May 4 '16 at 2:20
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    Cramming is normally an undergrad phenomenon. Grad studies requires better planning than last minute studying – Darrin Thomas May 4 '16 at 2:23
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    Based on the class I'm teaching this semester, I would say the optimal answer is "112 days in advance" :-) – Nate Eldredge May 4 '16 at 2:50
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    I don't know why people think this is an undergrad-only phenomenon... I have voted to re-open. – jakebeal May 4 '16 at 10:53
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    While "off-topic because undergrad" may be an arguable issue, I think there are several other equally valid close reasons: overly broad (is this for an art history class, a drawing class, a string theory class...), primarily opinion based (everybody has an opinion on how to "learn" correctly, and most of them don't have significant scientific support)... – zibadawa timmy May 4 '16 at 13:39
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I'm going to go out on a limb here with a somewhat radical answer:

Don't study for exams.

You are correct that cramming isn't very effective for retention. I don't think it's particularly effective for helping exam performance either, since cramming tends to a) deprive you of sleep and b) increase your stress level, both of which are terrible for doing well on an exam. Moving that cramming behavior earlier in time doesn't change things very much: you're still studying in a way that is stressful and doesn't promote long-term retention.

The best way to really learn the material in a course is to put it to use. Fortunately, most classes give you problem sets, projects, etc., that are designed to do just that. I recommend studying by embracing these wonderful gifts:

  • Invest your time up front, working starting when problems or projects are given out, not at the last minute before they are due. The amount of time needed is the same, but your stress level will be lower and your retention higher.
  • Remember that a problem is never really about getting the answer, it is about the process by which you get the answer. If you are just following a formula, you should feel uncomfortable, because what if you mix up the formula? Check your answers against intuitions and alternate routes to the solution to make sure that you are getting the process right.
  • Don't give up on any problem. A difficult problem is a critical opportunity to learn key concepts in a class.
  • If allowed, work together in groups---but make sure that you all do all of the problems individually before comparing. When you compare, arguing and explaining to figure out whose answer is correct will help you understand more thoroughly.
  • When you get marks back, everywhere that you lost points make sure that you understand why and learn how to do it correctly.
  • Also, go to class. Even if you don't like the lecturer, you are more likely to learn well from lecturer plus textbook than from textbook alone.

If you do all of this, there is little need to "study" in the cramming sense. By the time you walk into an exam, you will probably know quite well which parts of the material you know and which you don't. Instead of studying, I recommend taking the time before the exam period to relax, sleep well, and do interesting things that continue to exercise your intellect in whatever way you find most personally stimulating and inspiring.

Do all of this and you will likely be able to walk into an exam with low stress and a well-functioning brain, get the grade that you deserve, and retain the important material from the class over the long-term, to build on in your subsequent classes and your career.

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    The longer I've been in school, the more I've come to believe in not studying. At this point my "exam studying" usually consists of skimming over my notes to refresh what topics the class covered, doing a practice problem or two if I don't remember something well, and maybe looking at a previous exam if available. A total of 1-2 hours, usually just a day or two before the exam. – Roger Fan May 4 '16 at 4:21
  • In addition to @jakebeal's answer, I also recommend Cal Newport's book 'How to become a straight A student'. What is said above can also be found in that book and many more tips. – Prof. Santa Claus May 4 '16 at 9:32

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