Cramming vs. spaced repetition: When to use which method to learn Chinese | Hacking Chinese

Reviewing is an integral part of learning Chinese, and students who don’t do it will forget most of what they have learnt. The fact that reviewing is important is something most students know, but when it comes to how to review, things become hazier.

Simply looking at or rereading already familiar content is common but very inefficient; active recall in the form of questions is much better at reinforcing long-term memory.

Then there are other ways to review, such as listening to or reading Chinese that is new in composition, but contains the same characters, words and expressions you have already learnt. This is what graded readers and podcasts at lower levels than your own are good for.

In this article, we’re going to look at one specific aspect of how to review, namely the timing, or put briefly: when should you review? I don’t mean time of day, even though that’s worth looking into as well, but the distribution over time of each individual review. This is something that has been researched thoroughly, so if you want to read more, check the references at the end of this article.

Cramming vs. spaced repetition

Reviews of a specific item, such as a Chinese character or word, can either be crammed together in a short period of time (sometimes called massed repetition in the literature) or spread out over time (usually called spaced repetition or distributed repetition). The first method is common when cramming for exams in school, including for students of Chinese at university.

The second method is not common as a deliberate study strategy, even though listening and reading will expose students to distributed reviews too (the average student rarely engages in this type of listening or reading anyway). It’s a pity that spaced repetition isn’t used more, because it has been shown over and over to be much more efficient (see for example Zechmeister & Shaughnessy, 1980;  Bahrick, 1993).

This article  is not meant as an explanation of what spaced repetition is and how it works, so if you’re new to the idea, please read my old article about spaced repetition software for Chinese students.

Cramming actually works, but not as well as you think

One would think that if spaced repetition works so well, students would gradually adopt it as a superior method. This is not the case, though, there’s even research to support that cramming as a method becomes more widespread the longer the students have studied (see Vacha & McBride, 1993).


There are probably many factors influencing what methods students use to pass exams, but here are some I think are plausible.

Learning Chinese is not a short-term project

So, in summary, cramming is a valid method that works for short-term studying. However, learning Chinese is not a short-term project. It takes years. All the things you learn as a beginner, you still need to know as an intermediate student, and most of the things you learn as an intermediate student, you will need at an advanced level.

Much of this can be taken care of by huge amounts of exposure, both listening and reading. You will then naturally review what you have learnt, in context. This works well for receptive skills (see my article about extensive reading) , but not so well for things like handwriting Chinese characters. As every slightly advanced learner (and indeed native speaker) knows, being able to read is not the same as being able to write.

Cramming vs. spaced repetition: When to use which method to learn Chinese?

The answer is that ideally, there should be no situation where cramming is the optimal strategy or the best solution for you. It’s only the optimal strategy in the artificially structured world of institutional language learning, which is often assessed with the short term in mind, whereas the real world of communication in a language is long term.

Cramming is only the best solution if you have neglected your studies or for some other reason have to learn a lot very fast (i.e. cramming), without any consideration as to how much you will remember later. Keep in mind that cramming does work, it’s just not the best long-term solution.

What should be done?

As learners of Chinese, we really need spaced repetition to commit characters, words and expressions to long-term memory in an efficient way. Please note that efficiency is important here, because  the same study I quoted above that said that cramming worked also said that cramming took more hours. We don’t want that. We want to use those hours to immerse ourselves in the language more or perhaps learn even more vocabulary.

So, make sure you employ spaced repetition when you learn Chinese, preferably both in the form of extensive listening and reading, as well as flashcards, especially for Chinese characters.

As teachers of Chinese, we really need to stop organising our teaching in a way that benefits cramming. Courses and lessons should be designed with the long-term benefit of students in mind, and cramming does not promote that. Assessment should be continuous and not only focus on what has been taught recently. Exams should not only cover the new vocabulary in the last six chapters of the textbook. Students should of course be told about this in advance and they should be given the tools to cope. Spaced repetition is one of them.

Further reading

Bahrick, H. P., Bahrick, L. E., Bahrick, A. S., & Bahrick, P. E. (1993). Maintenance of foreign language vocabulary and the spacing effect. Psychological Science4(5), 316-321.

Bloom, K. C., & Shuell, T. J. (1981). Effects of massed and distributed practice on the learning and retention of second-language vocabulary. The Journal of Educational Research74(4), 245-248.
Longer term benefits, same short term.

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”?. Psychological science19(6), 585-592.

Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition23(9), 1297-1317.

Vacha, E. F., & McBride, M. J. (1993). Cramming: A barrier to student success, a way to beat the system or an effective learning strategy?. College Student Journal.

Zechmeister, E. B., & Shaughnessy, J. J. (1980). When you know that you know and when you think that you know but you don’t. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society15(1), 41-44.

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