Cram! How to Conduct Emergency Learning

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So it’s the day before the exam, you haven’t really prepared for it at all yet and you’re panicked. Maybe you had a lot to do at work, maybe you had a couple of emergencies come up or maybe there was a James Bond movie marathon on cable TV this week. Save your excuses—we’re not interested. What we are interested in, though, is helping you out of this jam with a little cram.


The cram session is basically a whirlwind trip—usually spanning less than 24 hours—through subject matter that was covered in a course that lasted several weeks or even months. Obviously, cramming isn’t an ideal situation for studying, but with the right mindset, a certification candidate can still prepare for a closely looming exam effectively under these extreme circumstances.


The first thing to do is relax. Keeping your cool will help you maintain your concentration, so you’ll want to get into that state prior to studying. Before you do anything at all, simply sit down in a restful position and take some deep breaths. Lie down and take a short nap if you like. If you have trouble relaxing, try going for a run or bike ride and really push yourself physically. That should help you clear your head. Also, don’t start on an empty stomach, but don’t overeat too. Either of these can take your mind off of the task at hand in their own special way.


Once you’ve brought yourself to a state of calm, find a comfortable, quiet, unadorned place to set up shop. Then make a checklist of every conceivable thing you’ll need to study—books, notes, folders, laptop, paper, pens, highlighters and so forth—and put them all within arm’s length of where you’ll be sitting. You won’t want to keep getting up every few minutes to get this or that while you’re trying to focus on the material.


Now that you’ve got everything you need to get started, let the cramming begin! Start out with the central principles and concepts covered by the exam you’re preparing for. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with these, refamiliarize yourself with them. Now, work your way out from there into the more detailed content. As you’re skimming (that’s skimming, not reading) through the printed materials and your notes, be sure to have that highlighter handy so you can indicate where the crucial information is for later reference.


Once you’ve been studying for awhile—about an hour or so—get up and stretch out for a minute or two. Then walk around the block, come back inside and get a snack, something healthy, preferably. Then return to your studies. After about another hour, repeat the process but do something different during the break, like watching an episode of “The Simpsons” or checking out your favorite blog. Keep doing this as long as you’re cramming.


A quick word on coffee and soda: You may want to start out with a cup of java or a Coke to get the synapses firing, but don’t keep drinking these throughout your cram session. After awhile, you not only won’t react to it anymore, but you’ll also be setting your body up for a serious crash. If you have to drink something, stick with glasses of water.


After studying for several hours on end, your brain and body will start to get tired. They’re telling you to stop, and you should take heed. Don’t give into the temptation to trade sleep for study time: Your mind will not work optimally without a good night’s rest. Instead, plan to get up early so you can give yourself at least an hour before the test to re-review what you went over the night before. Due to a combination of adrenaline and extreme concentration, some of your best studying will take place during this brief window. I won’t promise any miracles, but after all of this cramming, you might actually be surprised at how well you perform on the exam.

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