In this post, I’m going to walk you through an easy-to follow, 9-step process to help you cram effectively for your exams — by studying for just a couple of hours each day for 2 days.
You’re going to learn a simple process to go from knowing almost nothing about your exams…
…to remembering everything you wanted to remember by using a spaced repetition tool called Anki.
Or is that too big of a promise?
It’s definitely doable, though.
Heck, even if you’re not cramming for your exams, I’d even say you should study the same way.
Needless to say, if you’d ever cram for your exams, make sure you follow these steps and avoid the “top 10 tips and hacks” online — they’re wasting your time, and don’t give predictable results.
What you really need is a battle-tested system you can use over and over again.
- 1 Why You Need A Guide to “Cram Effectively”
- 2 The 3 Pre-requisites for Effective Cramming
- 3 9 Steps to Cram Effectively Using Anki
- 3.1 Step 1. Externalize everything you’re going to cram (your topic list) to a sheet of paper, or TXT/DOC file
- 3.2 Step 2. Then, let’s apply the 80/20 rule to your cramming list
- 3.3 Step 3. Gather all of your materials in front of you right now, and make distractions harder to reach.
- 3.4 Step 4. Start a pomodoro session in your PomoDone, and then start taking notes from what you’ve learned.
- 3.5 Step 5. When your timer goes off, take a break and stop doing anything.
- 3.6 Step 6. Repeat steps 4 to 5 over and over again until you get the big idea.
- 3.7 Step 7. Now that you’re finished understanding the topic, it’s time to create Anki cards.
- 3.8 Step 8. Review all of the cards
- 3.9 Step 9. Repeat until you’re finished with everything you’ve placed inside PomoDone
- 4 ⚠ IMPORTANT: Sleep for at least 8 hours in a dark, cold room
- 5 What to Do on Exam Day
Why You Need A Guide to “Cram Effectively”
You’ve always been told not to cram, and your well-meaning friends give you elaborate study guides you can’t help but…NOT follow.
Now, while I certainly don’t condone procrastination…
(Trust me, I “really” don’t…)
I also realize that there will be times that you won’t have any other choice but to cram for your next exam — am I right?
Oh, are you nodding your head right now?
If you do, then this is the guide you needed, but just didn’t have the motivation to find.
(It magically came to you, in other words)
If you really have no choice and you’re gonna have to cram, anyway, (or plan A, most likely) then you might as well learn how to do it in the most effective way possible.
You know, “just in case.” 😉
However, if you fail to follow my exact steps, then my guide won’t be able to save your rear when exam time comes.
It would be too late by then.
That’s a shame.
But before I give you your step-by-step plan, let’s make an agreement here first.
After you finish this guide, you will read my free course on Anki so this doesn’t happen again. (not that often, at least…)
That’s because this guide is merely a short-term solution.
You can use this over and over again, but it’s still geared toward the short-term.
In that free course, I teach exactly how you should set-up your Anki so that you can learn better and study in less time for GOOD.
As a result, you’ll get back your motivation for learning.
Isn’t that amazing?
ALRIGHT, damn it, let’s get started already— you got an upcoming exam to cram for!
The 3 Pre-requisites for Effective Cramming
Okay, first of all, install all of these apps into your PC or Laptop:
Anki will be your primary cramming tool — for now, at least — because it’s where you will create your own Active Recall material.
PomoDone will be your external brain for remembering what you have to do as well as what you’re going to do.
This way, you can avoid internal distractions due to excessive cognitive load and the Zeigarnik Effect.
Whatever —just call them “internal distractions,” no need for fancy names today.
Are you done?
Okay, let’s start with the guide.
9 Steps to Cram Effectively Using Anki
Step 1. Externalize everything you’re going to cram (your topic list) to a sheet of paper, or TXT/DOC file
By “everything,” I really mean everything.
I want you to look at your topics list and start from there.
Pick out only the topics you have to study for that day — and then write the topic names in your notebook, in Notepad, Word, Google Doc, or whatever.
I use ResophNotes for Windows, as you’ll see in the next page.
For this, just write down what specific tasks you need to do. It’s important that you’re writing down concrete tasks instead of ambiguous ones like “Study for 1 hr.”
This step is crucial because you don’t want dangling thoughts and open loops distracting you from your current task.
In case it’s not obvious, open loops cause a lot of overwhelm, and as you may know, getting overwhelmed makes you procrastinate even more. (Well, $!@#!)
It also helps you avoid multitasking — which is a terrible idea because if you do multitask, you’re tremendously more ineffective at focusing and cramming.
Look, you can’t talk to two people at once and understand both completely, can you?
So, why would you do the same to your studying — which is a more demanding task in the first place?
Again, list everything down so you can do them one at a time.
Now, go ahead, externalize!
Step 2. Then, let’s apply the 80/20 rule to your cramming list
Which are the most important few that will give the most results?
Now that you’ve created a list, use it as a guide so you can determine which specific ideas you should pay attention on.
This is too important because the time you spend on unimportant stuff is also the time you DON’T spend on important ones — it’s a huge opportunity cost, needless to say.
You can find what’s the most important ones if you have a textbook — just look at the chapter objectives/end-chapter questions and treat them as the MOST important parts you should know.
In any case, that’s actually what the author wants you to know.
Why else would he put it in there, huh?
I did this approach back in college, and man, it really saved me a WHOLE lot of time — there’s no need to tackle smaller details when I truly understand the big ideas.
I got some items wrong in my exams, but because I fully get the big ideas, I was able to think for myself on the other problems.
(But that’s when I haven’t discovered Anki.)
Also, speaking of big ideas, study big concepts and principles first before even memorizing smaller details.
That’s because once you understand big concepts, you’ll find that you can easily derive some of the smaller details from your reasoning skills alone.
Here’s an example for a list:
(This is especially easy for a multiple choice exam.)
Also, if your professor told you explicitly about something you should pay attention to — great!
You just assured what’s likely going to show up in your next exam.
Now, put everything you’ve externalized as well as the topics you have to study inside PomoDone.
Load them in there so we have access to them in one place — so that Pomodone “remembers” them for us in a ready-to-do state.
Just one click and you’re ready to study!
Alright, next step!
Step 3. Gather all of your materials in front of you right now, and make distractions harder to reach.
When I say gather all of your materials in front of you, I don’t mean literally putting ALL of your textbooks in front of you.
I mean put everything you need in front of you, and just make it easy for you to reach whatever else you need.
Read the emphasized parts again because they’re pretty crucial.
Also, you want to make distractions invisible and unreachable.
Look, when your textbooks are hard to reach, it gets you lazy to stand up even though it’s “just” on the other side of the room.
When you do the same with your distraction tools, you also create the same effect to your brain — which means this is the easiest way to avoid distraction effortlessly.
Now, what about online distractions?
Luckily, when you install the PomoDone Chrome Extension, you’ll find that it also has an integrated website blocker, so once you start studying, you needn’t worry about distractions too much.
(You just need to set it up to block distracting websites, tho)
Step 4. Start a pomodoro session in your PomoDone, and then start taking notes from what you’ve learned.
Put another way, when you start reading your material, write down what you’ve understood.
This distinction is crucial.
The goal of note-taking isn’t to write down important information — but to help you think better.
It’s just a cognitive tool to help you — wait for it — externalize what’s in your working memory, so you can free it up and as a result, think better.
You see how that works?
I don’t want to get into a rant here about how conventional note-taking is crap, so let’s just keep this actionable:
Get a blank sheet of paper and when you start reading, use figures, words, or whatever the hell you’re thinking to you understand the concept better.
No need for that Feynman Technique crap or “explaining it to a 5-year old” — they’re a waste of time if you want to just cram effectively.
Trust me, I’ve done that same thing and while they do work, there’s a far better, time-saving alternative:
That is, to just make sure you connect them with what you already know, and that’s it.
By doing so, you connect the new knowledge to your existing “web” of ideas, so to speak.
You don’t have time right now to speak it out loud — learning happens in your brain, rather than in your mouth, for Pete’s sake.
I don’t even know why “reciting” is a study “technique.”
Anyway, this shouldn’t take too long, especially when you use PomoDone because you’re fully engaging your brain’s working memory on the current task.
That makes you way better at thinking and processing information — because it’s like you’re creating a soft deadline for yourself each time you start your timer.
Oh and before I forget, stop with the highlighting and re-reading crap; they don’t work for cramming effectively.
Other guides tell you to highlight and re-read in order to cram, but these guys don’t know what they’re talking about.
Maybe they’re one of those “grinder” students who pull multiple all nighters but achieve no results.
Retrieval Practice is the real deal — none of that highlighting stuff.
I’ve crammed a ton of exams, too, and I can 100% guarantee that what I’m showing you really works if you do it correctly.
Next step — let’s move on, quick!
Note: If you want to remember short lists, just make up stories and mnemonics to remember them better. You can do it.
No ‘secret’ study techniques from a Straight-A Harvard Student — who’s probably gifted anyway — required.
Step 5. When your timer goes off, take a break and stop doing anything.
Seriously. What this will do is restore your energy so you’re ready for the next Pomodoro session.
The key here is to let your mind wander. That is to say, using your phone in this step is a bad idea.
Mind-wandering activates the default mode network of your brain — you might be familiar with it as the brain’s “diffuse mode” from A Mind for Numbers — which essentially creates the same brain activity as sleeping.
And because sleeping is how the brain consolidates information, you also get some retention benefits when you let your mind wander during rest periods! Win-win!
Of course, logically speaking, if you don’t rest, each minute you put in will yield gradually diminishing results.
Let’s face it — while we’re not robots, we all want minimum time and maximum results.
And that’s why contrary to what “hard working students” tell you, you achieve that by working smart, not by forcing your body to “go past limits,” which is probably a stupid idea, anyway.
(At least, when it comes to studying.)
If you study for four 25-minute sessions in perfect condition, you’ve already beat someone who just studied for 100 minutes straight but is tired out of their mind.
Case closed. Let’s move on.
Step 6. Repeat steps 4 to 5 over and over again until you get the big idea.
Again, the big idea of your topic is what’s important. The details come later.
So, understand the concepts first, rather than get eaten by the volume of what you should “memorize”.
In the next step, you’ll find out that you needn’t worry about memorizing many little facts.
Alright, are you done? Let’s move on again. (This is so fast paced!)
Step 7. Now that you’re finished understanding the topic, it’s time to create Anki cards.
This will make sure that you’ll actually remember what you’ve understood — let’s call this step the “reassurance mechanism” because it’s the step that will make you remember what you’ve learned today.
Of course, if you took notes and connected what you’ve learned to your prior knowledge, then it won’t be easy to forget them anytime soon.
But just to make sure, (hence, reassurance) we’d have to test that with Active Recall using Anki.
Now, open up Anki and then create a New Deck with your subject’s name. No need to separate your topics, just trust me on this.
You’ll get the benefit of the Interleaving effect when you do it that way.
Then, while looking at your notes, create extremely specific questions into Anki to test your understanding of them.
One warning though:
Statements are NOT questions.
I find this is the biggest mistake beginners make with Anki.
It’s just so common that I had to really warn you about it.
So, if my notes look like this…
Then my cards would look like this…
Are we on the same page here?
The key here is to test yourself of the notes you’ve just written by using questions, not statements.
This is to “solidify” what you’ve just done out of your learning session.
Now, promise me that you would never ever EVER take an exam without doing this step.
Why? That’s because…
Simply learning isn’t enough — retention is different to understanding.
Understanding helps retention, but they’re not the same thing — got that?
We’ll save the details for another day.
Step 8. Review all of the cards
Don’t worry about the settings just yet — just make sure you’re recalling — it’s the most crucial step to retaining everything you’ve learned.
Just click on your deck, press spacebar to show your answer, and then press spacebar again when you get the right answer.
When you get the wrong answer, though, you should press “1” on your keyboard instead of spacebar after showing the right answer.
That’s the shortcut for “Again” — which shows that card again so you can remember it the next time around.
Repeat this until you finish the deck.
It should NOT take you a lot of time — I only take 2 hours to finish my 500-800 card due reviews before.
So, even if you’re creating 200 cards, you’ll be done in no time.
Step 9. Repeat until you’re finished with everything you’ve placed inside PomoDone
Just read that heading. That’s what it is.
Just repeat steps 4-8 until you’re done.
⚠ IMPORTANT: Sleep for at least 8 hours in a dark, cold room
Your brain functions at its best when you’re fully rested, (common sense, folks) so rest the hell up the night after you study!
But then again, if you don’t place your phone somewhere where it’s invisible and hard-to-reach, you WILL inevitably procrastinate on sleeping.
Everything you’ve done so far will go to waste, and you wouldn’t have reaped the rewards of effective studying.
So, if you want to fall asleep faster, make sure you make your room as dark as possible to quickly get that sleep hormone melatonin, and make your room temperature 18 degC (64.4degF) so you fall asleep faster.
You can also take a warm bath before going to your cold room to drop your body temperature and help you feel sleepy much faster.
Others call it “biohacking,” but I just call it sleeping better.
That being said, if you’re exposed to strong lights or if you’re exercising at night, then these would probably have minimal effects.
For setting your alarm, STOP using the regular alarms.
Seriously — they wake you up even when you’re still in deep sleep, and that messes up memory consolidation and destroys your focus the next day.
So, install the Sleep Cycle app on your phone so you get an alarm clock that doesn’t make you groggy as hell when you wake up.
That way, you’re going to be in perfect condition to study (or take an exam).
It’s even better if you have a wake-up light — it helps regulate your circadian rhythm so you “naturally” wake up and thus not disrupt any valuable REM sleep.
Why did I make a separate section just for sleep?
Well, think of it this way:
How many times have you told yourself, “I didn’t have enough sleep last night — this is going to be my best day ever!”?
Never? Exactly my point.
This is why all nighters are stupid.
Studying doesn’t have to be that way, because like you’ve just learned, you can study effectively without pulling tedious, stressful all-nighters.
(also, group studying doesn’t really work that well, anyway.)
You can definitely get high grades without studying that much, anyway, so why make it hard for yourself?
What to Do on Exam Day
If you’ve done everything I’ve said in each step, then you’re almost ready to crush your next exam. (even though you just crammed for it)
That is, if you followed each step correctly.
If today is your exam day and you’re reading this, then do a custom study for the decks you just built.
In Anki (whether on your mobile device or on your computer), there’s a “Custom Study” session you can use a couple of hours before the exam.
If you’ve answered everything in your deck correctly, provided that you’ve covered what you need to cover in the preparation phase you just did, then you can be sure you can answer your exams without getting that pesky “mental block.” (After using Anki, I somehow believe deep inside that mental block is just a hoax…)
Goodluck on your next exam!
Well, what else can I say?
Again, as agreed, you’ll read the free course so that you can take charge of your studying from now on — got that?
If you don’t want that, just make sure to learn “retrieval practice” and “spaced repetition,” okay?
If you have any questions or any recurring problem related to this one, or would want to tell me how it went, then please send me an email!