College student cramming for a test.
November 5th, 2020 E-Learning

Cramming leads to increased stress and anxiety, poorer test scores, and lower retention. How can you help your learners avoid this habit?

As an online educator, you want to do your best to ensure your learners succeed in your course. However, contrary to what you might think at first, success means several things. It means that your learners finish the course, but it also means that they have a good experience taking the course. It means they learn the course material, but it also means they remember the course material for months—if not years—after finishing.

The challenge that many online teachers face is that traditional models for course assessment have relied on one or two major tests—usually a midterm and a final. And while many online courses aren’t faced with the same constraints as a college curriculum, they do often fall back on one big test at the end to see if you remembered the material.

The problem is that the more a course pushes assessment till the end of the course, the more learners are likely to do the same with their studying. And when learners put off studying for a big test till the very end of the course, they are unlikely to score well, unlikely to have a good experience with the course, unlikely to thoroughly learn the course material, and unlikely to remember what they learned beyond a few weeks.

In short, cramming is bad for you and for your learners. But, it’s also an all-too easy bad habit for your learners to slip into. Here’s how you can prevent it from happening.

1. Begin your course by setting study expectations.

Most learners know that cramming is bad for learning, and few walk into a course expecting to spend their last few days desperately pulling all-nighters in preparation for a big test. But many still fall into this trap if they don’t realize how much work it will take to stay ahead.

At the very beginning of your course, offer an overview of the material, and prepare your learners for the effort it will take to succeed. Make sure they know how much work each week should take so they can prepare accordingly.

2. Drip feed your content.

Another obvious step you can take to prevent your learners from burning out? Drip feed your content.

Sometimes learners try to get ahead in a course by cramming in the beginning. This is just as detrimental to their long-term success as cramming at the end. Help your learners pace themselves by drip feeding the content a little at a time. As an added benefit, drip feeding content keeps your learners engaged over time so they don’t forget about your course!

3. Check learner comprehension with micro quizzes.

We’ve talked before about the benefits of micro quizzes, especially as an engagement tool. The more quizzes you have in your course—and the lower stakes each quiz is—the happier your learners will be to take them. In fact, when anxiety about failure is removed from a quiz, for many students it ceases to be a burden and becomes a game.

Even better, getting feedback about course progress builds learner confidence as well as strengthening their memory retention. It can be reassuring to learners to know that they’re understanding the material as they go, and if here’s anything causing them problems, micro quizzes can help them identify those gaps early, before the wrong information has time to sink in.

4. Offer multiple review tests instead of one crushing final.

Another way to keep your learners from cramming at the end of a course? Don’t put all your assessment at the end. Breaking assessment over several tests—every time a learner completes a further 20% of the course, for instance—means that your learners will be putting in study time throughout the course, instead of just at the very end.

The key to making this work well for you is to make sure each successive test includes material from the earlier parts of the course—not just what was covered since the previous test. This isn’t to “trick” your learner. It’s because reviewing information after it’s had time to rest helps it move from the learner’s short-term to long-term memory.

5. Send your learners regular study reminder emails with review prompts.

Use email to your advantage by automating regular study reminders. These can include prompts to put in study time, micro quizzes to engage them in the middle of the week, idea prompts to get them thinking about the material, or reminders of the content you covered in a previous lesson.

6. Use different assessment types.

You don’t have to put everything in tests and quizzes. Creating interactive elements in your course, such as learning scenarios, can help learners work with the information in a more relatable way. You can also create different assignments, such as presentations or essays, where your learners can take their time to research information thoroughly, instead of trying to memorize everything at the last minute.

7. Encourage discussion groups and community support.

Finally, offer ways for your learners to work with each other on the material. Build discussion groups or introduce conversation topics in your course forum. Design group projects to keep learners engaged, and help them absorb the material by talking it through with each other.

When learners have a better experience of your course, they are more likely to stay with you for the long haul.

Your learners don’t just leave your course and forget about you. If you’ve done your job well, they may very well come back for more courses. They may even spread the work among their social networks.

Helping your learners have a good course experience—which includes learning the material they came to you to learn—is the most significant factor of this. If you help your learners build good study habits by organizing a course that reinforces them, you’ll help them feel more confident in their learning abilities, and will keep them coming back for more.

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