It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. - C. Northcote Parkinson, 1955
So you come to me in your time of need.
So you've got an important test tomorrow, and you’re trying desperately to figure out some way to learn 12 weeks of material in the next 12 hours.
You're in the right place. There is still plenty of time to get a great grade on your test but you have to spend that time wisely.
In this video, I'll guide you hour by hour through the night, giving you a step-by-step system that'll get you prepared for any test, even if you only have one night to study.
So stop beating yourself up and let's get into The Ultimate Cramming Guide For Tests.
12:00 AM - Find a Practice Test
Welcome to midnight. Your motivation is at its highest now, and we're going to take advantage of that.
The first thing that you need to do is take a practice test. We need to start with this step as it will tell you what type of questions you will see on the test, what is it that you know, and, most importantly, what do you still need to learn.
The goal for your study session tonight should be to be able to answer all of the questions from that practice test with the materials you'll have tomorrow. So if you were allowed a cheat sheet, it would include that. But answering a question doesn't mean just circling B on a sheet of paper, it means being able to explain why the answer you selected is right, and why the other choices would be wrong.
Once you can answer all the questions like this, you'll be ready for the real test tomorrow.
But I hear you saying... "Jacob, my teacher doesn't give us practice tests. What should I do?"
Well if you don't have a practice test, then you're going to make one. You can pull questions from past homework, create them from your notes, or google for a similar class's test. If you need help, I go over how to create meaningful questions for your exam in this video right here.
- How to take notes that automatically get you great grades
- How to prepare a practice test from your notes
So your first assignment is to pause the video and get or create a practice test. Once you've got the test in front of you, come back before you take it and you'll learn how you can get the test to tell you exactly what you should study first.
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1:00 AM - The Tally Method (Taking the Test)
Now that you've got your practice test, I want to explain how to use tally marks to objectively determine the best section for you to study.
The Tally Method
Take the test and for each question, write down the question topic on a separate sheet of paper and put a tally mark next to it.
If you encounter any questions on the same topic continue adding tally marks in that section.
If you end up guessing on a question you'll want to circle the mark, as that will be important later.
After you've taken the test, you should have a list of question topics. The relative number of tallies will give you a ranking of the most important sections you'll be tested over.
Now when you grade your practice test, cross off tally marks for questions that you get right. The topic with the most remaining tallies at the end will tell you what section you're weakest in and that's the section you should start with.
We want to increase your score as much as possible, in as little time as possible, and each uncrossed tally mark is a potential point that you can get back. So the most efficient method is to start with the section that has the highest number of uncircled tally marks, then most guessed tally marks, then the total number of tally marks.
You want to start with sections that have fewer guesses because you should be more familiar with that material. Thus you'll be able to find and understand the right answer faster.
If you’d like an example of me walking through an exam where I use this tally method you can check out this video right here.
So now you're ready to take the test and use the tally method to figure out the most important section for you to review. I'll see you back here after you finish, where you'll learn how to lock the right answers into your head so you remember them for the test.
2:00 AM - Lock the Answers into Your Head
"A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”
At this point, you should know the most important sections that you need to review. This was the "sharpening the axe" part of the night, next comes actually chopping down the tree, where we get the stuff you need to know into your brain. There are two sections to this: finding the answer and then locking that into your head.
Finding the Answer
Since I'm not able to give you specifics on the right answers for your test, let me just give you the process I would follow.
In the 11th hour, you need to find the answer now. Here are the 5 sources that you can check in order.
- Answer key
- Textbook/Primary Source
- Phone a friend
- Digital On-Demand Tutor. You do have to pay for it but you can get a real person answering your questions in real-time, and sometimes that's exactly what you need.
- Last second question to your professor.
Lock the answers in your head
This is the section most people don't think about.
After you find your answer, you'll need to lock the answers into your head so you remember it for test time.
If you're familiar with memory systems, you might think this is the time to bust out your inner Sherlock and start placing random facts on your journey from your bed to your bathroom.
But that's likely not what you need right now. Instead, you need to transform dry information into a format that works with your brain. Your brain isn't built to remember random details or trivia questions, it's built to understand systems, stories, places, and people.
How do you translate information to lock it in your head?
In short, try to teach the material. Teaching the material means talking or writing out an explanation to your favorite real or imaginary friend. You're not trying to memorize that the answer is B for this question, instead, you need to explain why the answer is B, and not A, C, or D.
Forcing yourself to explain something formats a myriad of random details into a story, which will help you remember it. But there are some great techniques that can help you get even more out of this. For example, here’s one helpful technique which is "personifying the players".
If you're studying biology, and the question is related to the charge a cell membrane caries you might give a story of how a single potassium ion is snuggled up next to two of it’s cousins almost like they’re in a roller coaster before they’re shot across the membrane through a Na/K pump and the potassium ion then sees a bunch of its cousins hanging out next to the organelles of the cell. That first-person perspective helps you visualize the information which makes it much "stickier"
Techniques like this help you get more out of studying, but they are not critical to master right now. They're like seasoning on a steak. It makes the steak much better if applied correctly but it's easy to go overboard with, and not absolutely necessary. Salt and pepper. In this case, analogy and story are enough for you right now. However, if you want to learn more about my favorite ways to teach difficult concepts I go over that in this video right here.
So what I want you to do now is to go through your first section and get the right answers to your questions. Then to get it to stick in your head, I want you to try teaching it to your imaginary or very real friend. After you finish, set a timer for 1 hour and move onto the next section. When that timer finishes, come back and we'll talk about how to check if you need to go over things again.
3:00 AM - Don't Forget What You Learned
Welcome to the witching hour. This is the time for some magic. Now that you have the right answer and you understand it, you need to forget it.
Ya, that's right, the best way to learn at this point is to let yourself see what you forget and then go over that material again in a different way. It's like layering paint, you can't just keep adding more you have to let it dry in between coats to get complete coverage.
How do you review your material?
You want to try answering the original question without refreshing yourself on your notes. That will show you what you've learned and what you need to go over again. Ideally, you’ll do this with some variables of the problem changed slightly, such as the specific numbers used or the exact focus of the question, so you have to use the information in your head without regurgitating a memorized answer.
Okay I got the answer right.
Nice Job. Revisit it in an hour. More on that in a second.
Okay, I got the answer wrong.
When you go over a point you forgot again, you don't want to go over it in the same way. That just failed you. A critical mistake is saying, "oh I just need to try harder" that's almost always wrong. Instead, you need to change your approach and try encoding the information in a different way. Ask a follow-up question on the details that you forgot, watch a different explanation, try inventing a story, or coming up with a different way to think about the problem. If we were to go back to that biology example, if you couldn't remember if it was 3 K+ or 3 Na+ ions that went in, then rather than reminding yourself of the information with a first-person perspective, draw a picture of the pump with the 2 K ions going in and the 3 sodium ions going out. Same information but in a new light.
So you're on board with me that reviewing is a good practice, and you know that you should change up your approach with information that you forget, but the natural question is when should I do this review when I have so many other sections to study?
The more times you review something with time in between the more likely you'll remember it come test time. That's one of the most well-researched facts in all of education. But if you're running low on time, you can review each concept after a 1-hour break and just add it to your cheat sheet to remind yourself of before the test. You're taking a bigger risk, but it's the absolute minimum that I would ever feel comfortable with. A more extensive review schedule would be 20 minutes after, then 1 hour, 3 hours later, and then once more right before the test. These should be quick reviews that don't take more than 5 minutes. To keep track of this you can use an app like Multitimer for iOS or Multi Timer StopWatch for Android. Add a new timer review for each segment after you finish it, increasing it to 20 min, 1 hr, then 3 hrs later.
Also, this is a good time to bring up cheat sheets.
Should I make a cheat sheet?
Yes, you should write one regardless if you can use one on your test. It's worth your time to keep track of the information that you're having a hard time with, which is what a cheat sheet is supposed to be. My only recommendation would be to hold off on writing on it until you're going back for your first review. That way you have some time to forget details and consolidate the answer so your notes will be limited to only the essential information that you're likely to forget on the test.
By doing all of this we're working to avoid that dreaded moment of "oh I remember doing this but I don't remember how I did it"
Now you're in the thick of things. So I want you to do your first review now, which should be no more than 5-10 minutes and if you get stuck try learning the information in a different way. Stick with this process of finding the answer, locking it in, and then testing yourself on it later. Continue to work on until you get tired or you finish all of your sections. Hint: that's when you get to sleep.
4:00 AM - To Sleep or Not To Sleep?
That is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind
To take the whips of questions and droops of eyes
Or to take Adderall against the racing clock.
The question remains. What should one do?
Here's the straight talk on sleep. You should get as much as you possibly can but only after you go through all of the material that you want to learn for the exam. Quoting from Kornell 2009 “Studying one large stack of flashcards (i.e. spacing) was more effective than studying four smaller stacks of flashcards separately (i.e. massing).“
And don’t feel like sleep is a waste of time. Sleep is the best possible device that you can use for learning. It will consolidate your memories, give you more energy, and improve your performance on the test. Another study was done that had two random groups of people learn the same information. The time that elapsed between the groups was the exact same but their scores were completely different. Why was that? The only difference was that one group had the chance to sleep and the other did not. The sleep group did significantly better than the group that went through their whole day. To quote from, Dr. Mathew Walker's book, Why We Sleep:
"Those who were awake throughout the day became progressively worse at learning, even though their ability to concentrate remained stable (determined by separate attention and response time tests). In contrast, those who napped did markedly better, and actually improved in their capacity to memorize facts. The difference between the two groups at six p.m. was not small: a 20 percent learning advantage for those who slept."
Of course, going to sleep isn't the hard decision, it’s getting back to studying after you wake up.
To help with this, first, prep your space. Layout what you want to study when you wake up so you're ready to go.
Second, after you wake up you need to get yourself going again. If you're stuck here are some tips that I like to use to help get me back into the zone. The first thing I'll try is to hold my breath while listening to some powerful music.
It works surprisingly well. You can try holding your breath right now, while I'm explaining why it's a good thing.
I like making a deal with myself, “you can stay in bed as long as you can hold your breath.” The complete pause gives a chance for my rational mind to take over. Holding my breath also gives a panic release of cortisol and adrenaline to help wake me up, while the relative cloudiness to freshness that comes from increased CO2 and decreased O2 levels combined with the dopamine and increased heart rate from music helps cause an increase in motivation. Also, the deep breaths that I'm forced to take afterward help calm me down any anxiety.
If I'm still feeling tired I will also do 1 minute of intense exercise like a sprint outside. If I'm stuck indoors burpees or a wall sit. At the end, set a timer for 3 minutes to catch my breath, drink some caffeine, eat some almonds, and visualize what I need to do.
At some point, you're probably going to start hating your life. That's normal. Say you don’t like how you’re feeling and mutter some four letter words under your breath. Keep going by finding the fun in pushing yourself and enjoy living out a scene from some movie montage.
How hard you push yourself is the big variable here. I can give you the best strategy in the world but it's only as good as your ability to apply it to all of the material that you need to learn. So study all of your material completely, then sleep,and do that as many times as you can before the exam. Come back about an hour before you need to leave for your exam to get some last-second cramming tips. Oh ya, you can breathe again.
11:00 AM - Stuffing Info Into Your Head
So let me fast forward and jump to the part right before you take the test. I recommend packing your bag while this video plays in the background so you're all set.
When you get to the room, pull out your notes, and look at the questions that you kept getting wrong. You want to load your short term memory with them. Just repeat them over and over again, like you’re memorizing some cute person’s phone number. The repeated rhythm will help cue yourself on the information.
Then when you get the test, pause holding that in your head, and when the teacher says "Go!" don't go into the first question but write down that key information and everything that you know on a blank spot of the test to remind yourself of later. If you’re feeling extra anxious just do a brain dump for the first 5 minutes to say how you’re feeling and remind yourself of everything you know as it's been shown to improve performance and lower anxiety on tests.
Finally, you're into the questions. I'll go over multiple-choice, short answer, and essay type questions with some rapid fire tips.
These come from my own experience, and sources all over the internet. If you're looking for sources you can check the description.
- Skim the test first, answering only the really, really easy questions, instead trying to plan out your relative time (1, 2, 4, 5)
- Spend less time figuring out the test by going in order, only skipping hard problems (4)
- Start the hard problems, give it another 15 seconds after you get stuck, then jump back to easy, and then revisit the hard problems at the end (1, 4, 5)
- Go at a fairly slow and comfortable pace to analyze each question and reduce chance of careless mistakes. (3)
- Try to answer it in your head first and then on paper. (2, 4)
- Read the question twice. The second time read the exact question before picking the answer (usually the last sentence) (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
- Show your work on math and science questions, write down the formula first, write units (5)
- Put boxes around your work for problems so you don’t get confused (1)
- Read every answer, crossing wrong ones off as you go (2, 3, 4)
- Read the grammar and units of the problem, for plurality or for an answer beginning with a vowel look for an, check that you converted an answer to the correct units (1, 3)
- Underline words like "always" or other absolute statements and double check your answer (3, 5).
- If there is an all of the above and you're sure of two answers then all of the above is correct. (2)
- If deciding between two and you aren't sure which is right, try to figure out which is wrong (3)
- Don't cross off weird answers just because they are weird (3)
- If stuck, remind yourself by envisioning the environment where you learned the material (1, 4)
- Ask yourself, what specific concept is the question referring to...what does the test maker want you to pick (3)
- If there is only one difference between answers, then usually one of those is the answer (3)
- Choose the answer that has better reasoning (3).
- If guessing, eliminate first, find a trend in what the test maker does, possibly different answer than the last question, true over false, choose B on 4 question answers, E on 5 question answers, or an all of the/none of the above answer (1, 2, 3)
- Two types of marking like a circle and square to represent what you are unsure about and what you are completely unsure about (3, 4)
- Answer every question, even if a guess (2, 4)
- Check answers at the end of each page, and then do a once over at the end (1)
- Look for hints from other questions (1,3,4)
- When revisiting don't overthink... usually follows the general principle, go with the answer that uses standard reasoning, or that is in line with what your test maker expects from you (3, 5)
- Think about what you would do differently when you get the test back to avoid making that mistake in the first place. (3)
If it's a short answer, make sure your point is comprehensible and on track vs fancy-sounding. You might get marked off on keywords but you can argue back more partial credit.
If it's an essay. The most important point is to answer the question you were given. Even a poor answer to that is better than a correct answer to the wrong question. Just write down what you know at the beginning in bullet point form and then worry about outlining it, organizing it, and the like. If you aren't sure, give the impression that you were running low on time. Focus on a complete and vivid introduction with a few good points. Tackle these last and draw from the previous questions where possible. Put the strongest points upfront and write them well, then let the back points be vaguer and sloppier but absolutely make sure to state all of your points from your introduction in the body with at least a reference to your evidence, and write a super short conclusion to give the impression that you know what you're talking about but just didn't have enough time to express it. Empirically, I've found that I'm able to get a better score on an essay that's complete but short than on incomplete essays that have a rushed introduction, or I'm at least able to argue for more points back later if I get a bad grade because I can show that I knew the material during the test.
So now you should be all set to go. Here's a checklist to run through with your bag
- [ ] Cheat sheet
- [ ] Textbook
- [ ] Laptop
- [ ] Pencil
- [ ] Pencil Sharpener or Extra Lead
- [ ] Extra eraser
- [ ] Water
- [ ] Snack
- [ ] Dressed in layers (in case it's cold or hot in the room)
- [ ] Test location
- [ ] Practice test
- [ ] Notes
- [ ] Any homework or additional assignments
- [ ] Anything for the other classes you have today
If you follow this you can pull a pretty good grade out of a class that you know almost nothing about.
I do want to address that this is not a good way to study for long term retention or to get the best grade in the class. Although you can get it done and significantly improve your grade it's like running an ultramarathon without training. With enough willpower, you can finish, but doing this one time isn't going to make you a world-class athlete, and thinking that you can handle it every day would break you down. Simply taking this exact study plan as what you do after your first lecture and spacing your review sessions to have a day or two between will get you an amazing grade in any class.
And after you pass this test get some sleep. When you wake up check out this video that will show you how to get yourself back on track with your study habits so you don't have to do this again.
Congratulations on making it through one of the best memories you will have of your time in school. With that good luck on your test and as always, thanks for getting better.