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Cram smarter, not harder

Are you often cramming the night before an exam? There are smarter ways, says cognitive psychologist Maarten van der Velde. He developed a programme that helps you study efficiently. ‘If you only have ten minutes to study in a day, it’s better to spend them using Memorylab than looking through your book.’
By Alexandre Torres
16 October om 10:49 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 17 October 2023
om 14:14 uur.
October 16 at 10:49 AM.
Last modified on October 17, 2023
at 14:14 PM.

Whenever exam season rolls by, the University Library springs to life. It’s filled to the brim with tired students anxiously reviewing their notes and going through mountains of course books. You can just about see the steam coming out of all those hardworking and focused brains… 

There is no doubt about it: UG students put in a lot of effort, often studying for long hours. But are they studying the right way?

According to cognitive psychologist Maarten van der Velde, the answer is no. At least not according to his recent research. But it’s by using these very insights that Van der Velde aims to help students optimise their learning. ‘We may not know everything about how the brain works’, Van der Velde says, ‘but we know quite a bit about how to make learning work better. And a big part of it is in how you structure your study time.’

Fall-back strategy

Van der Velde says that one of the most common study mistakes that students make is to cram right before an exam. ‘In many cases it’s a sort of fall-back strategy’, he explains. ‘You start the semester with great plans, but as it unfolds you have other things to worry about and your studies don’t go the way you intended. So you do a lot of cramming just before the exam.’

You might pass the course, but a few months later you don’t remember much anymore

While it may very well look like this strategy works, its effects are mostly temporary. ‘You might pass the course, but a few months later you don’t remember much anymore. It’s a shame. It doesn’t have to be like that.’

One way to fix this problem, Van der Velde and his collaborators believe, is by using computer programmes that steer students towards more efficient study practises. They spent the last few years developing a software programme called Memorylab, which automatically decides for the students what information they should study next in order to optimise their study session – a sort of digital private tutor.

Tracking progress

The way Memorylab works is by keeping track of each learner’s progress and needs. ‘It presents a particular question with a closed answer and checks if you got it right or wrong, and also the time it took you to get that response’, Van der Velde explains. ‘If you answer quickly and correctly, it’s likely that you know the information better than if it took you a really long time.’

With this data, Memorylab can predict the likelihood of a student retaining the information in the future. ‘Based on this, our algorithm can make recommendations’, says Van der Velde. ‘Maybe you should study this material a bit more, so you make sure you still know it tomorrow. But you already know that material well enough, so there’s no point in studying it anymore.’

If you answer quickly, you probably know the information

Memorylab also encourages students to spread their learning over the course of several days, awarding them points if they go back and study the same material. This practice is based on insights from cognitive psychology and ensures that the information is more likely to be stored effectively in the student’s brain.

Van der Velde believes these features can help students make the most of their study time, even when life gets busy. ‘We know these strategies are effective’, he states. ‘If you only have ten minutes to study in a day, it’s better to spend them using Memorylab than just looking through your book.’

Full control

During his research, Van der Velde integrated Memorylab into some of the UG’s courses. ‘We want to see how this pans out in the wild’, he says. 

In earlier projects, he gave full control to the students regarding if, when, and how they would use the software. And the results were clear: ‘Students who studied the same chapter on multiple days scored much better on the exam.’ 

How do students feel about handing over control to an automated system?

Despite these positive results, Van der Velde noted that many students still chose to study right before the exam. That is why his most recent projects have included more specific guidelines about the way in which students should use the software. He did not do so lightly, however. ‘We also have to consider the emotional side. How do students feel about handing over control to an automated system? Will they feel that they can trust it or not?’ he says. ‘That is a very complex issue.’

Assessment issues

Besides optimising study time, Van der Velde believes that his work could also help fix some issues in the way that assessment is currently done. Specifically, when it comes to exams. ‘Sometimes students do well in the lead-up to the exam’, he says, ‘but on exam day they are nervous, or didn’t get any sleep. Then, the exam shouldn’t determine the whole outcome of their grades.’

Memorylab could be useful in relieving the pressure from exams. Simply put, if a software programme can reliably verify that a student has learned something, there is less need for exams, according to Van der Velde. ‘In many cases you can eliminate exams, or at least reduce their importance’, he says, although he concedes that this would be a somewhat radical change. ‘It would require convincing a lot of people.’

The next step for Van der Velde is making Memorylab more accessible. ‘We are now focusing on how we can better support students with learning disabilities’, he says. ‘If a student has dyslexia, for example, and they switch two letters around, we still want to see that they actually know the right answer. The spelling won’t matter so much in that case.’

Looking towards the future, Van der Velde remains motivated by the potential impact of his work on the education landscape. ‘If our system is used by all the students of the university, and even outside of it, that would have a real-world impact on learning’, he says. ‘You don’t always get that when you do academic research. That’s what I really like.’