The Five-Day Study Plan: An Effective Alternative to Cramming

by Dianna L. Van Blerkom
University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Every semester students come to the Learning Resource Center after receiving low test grades. Many of those students were very successful in high school using the same study techniques and feel frustrated and uncertain about what went wrong. When I talk with the students about their preparation, I always ask them how they prepared for the exam. Some are rather surprised by my question, and simply say that they studied. After a few more questions, most students say that they read over their text and their notes (sometimes several times). Typically, they indicate that they spent one to three hours preparing, generally the night before the exam. Most of the students indicate that they felt well prepared for the exam, that they knew the material, and that they expected to get an A or B on the test. Clearly, they are shaken by the low grade and want to find a solution that will prevent this from happening again. Although they feel they need to change the way they study, they don't know what to do differently. At that point in the discussion, I recommend they use the Five-Day Study Plan to help them structure their study in a manner that aids their learning and memory of the material.

The basic format of the Five-Day Study Plan involves studying smaller units of material each day for five days. On the first day, for example, the student would prepare the oldest chapter (Chapter 1) of text material, along with accompanying lecture notes and any other related handouts, labs, or films. On the second day, the student would prepare the next oldest chapter (Chapter 2) and then review the materials prepared for the previous day. On each of the next two days, the student would prepare one more chapter (Chapter 3 and 4) while reviewing all of the material that was prepared for the earlier chapters. Finally, on the last day, the student would do brief reviews of all information still not learned and take a self-test.

The key features of the Five Day Study Plan are:

  1. it incorporates space practice
  2. it is task-oriented
  3. it is goal-oriented
  4. it is an integrated approach to learning
  5. it provides for built-in repetition of material
  6. it emphasizes self testing
  7. it is flexible

As you read the remainder of the article, I think you will gain a clearer understanding of how the components of the plan work together to lead to student success.

Spaced Practice

One of the most important features of the Five-Day Plan is its emphasis on spaced practice. Most students who enter college tend to study by cramming (using massed practice), which often leads to poor test performance. Because college exams generally cover more information and tend to be spaced much further apart than high school tests, students need to space their practice when preparing for exams. There is so much material to review (and learn) that students generally need to spend six to ten hours preparing for college exams if they want to get top grades. Spacing learning out over a period of days helps students learn more effectively - spaced learning is more effective for storing information in long-term memory. By spacing out their learning, students can also focus on smaller units of material at one time. By studying for two hours a day for five days, students are able to prepare effectively for exams without disrupting their entire time plan for the day or the week. Studying only two hours a day (with a break after one hour) also improves concentration, increases comprehension, and builds motivation.

Integrated Approach to Learning

The Five-Day Study Plan provides an integrated approach to learning. Chapter 1 in the plan represents the text chapter, the lecture notes that refer to that unit of text, and any other outside readings, labs, or presentations. Students study all of the material that relates to a specific topic at the same time, rather than studying bits and pieces of the material in isolation. This leads to better understanding of the information and a higher level of comprehension. Integrated study also motivates students to use some of the more useful active study strategies. Because they are working on the text and lecture material at the same time, they are more likely to prepare study sheets, predict broad essay questions, and make meaningful connections within the material.

Task-Oriented Study

The Five-Day Study Plan provides a natural structure for task oriented study. After dividing the material that must be reviewed, students select specific study tasks to prepare and then review the important material. Tasks such as making word cards (emphasizing technical vocabulary, important people, wars, processes, etc.), making question cards, making study sheets, preparing self-tests, taking notes, predicting and planning essay questions and answers are a few of the active study tasks that are recommended ways of preparing the chapter. Each of these strategies helps the student dig through the material and select the information that needs to be learned.. The strategies focus on writing tasks that condense and integrate the material, which is much more effective than simply reading over it. The uses of active study tasks helps students get actively involved in the study material as they prepare each chapter. I recommend that students use three or four different tasks in order to prepare each chapter. By choosing different strategies, students approach the material from different directions or perspectives, often leading to better understanding of the material. For example, a student might make up a set of technical vocabulary flash cards, develop a set of study sheets on major topics or concepts covered in the material, and develop a self-test for each chapter.

Once the chapter is prepared, the students must review the material on each of the following days. Students can review the material any number of ways. Several common review methods include using the word or question cards like flash cards, coveringthe details under main headings on study sheets and reciting from memory , taking self-tests, and talking about the material with someone else. The review sessions focus on recitations rather than reading. By writing or reciting the material, the students continue to be actively involved with the material. Reviewing the material each day keeps it fresh in long-term memory and continues to reinforce learning.


Students like using the Five-Day Study Plan because it is goal-oriented. Each of the prepare-and-review tasks that students include in the plan becomes a goal to be achieved. Some students add a time frame for completing each task in their plans. They treat each task as a step that will lead them to the larger goal of earning an A or B on the exam. The study plan takes on the structure of a "To Do List" that is composed of a series of small, specific tasks. As each task is completed, it is checked off, giving the student a feeling of accomplishment and motivating him or her to continue working toward the larger goal. For some students who have difficulty preparing for exams due to poor time management practices or high test anxiety, this plan provides a uniquely structured approach. As many of my students say, "You get things done because you know what you have to do."

Built-in Repetition

The Five-Day Study Plan provides a framework for built-in repetition of the material. By beginning with the oldest chapter first, students continue to work on that material over all five days. This repetition helps students learn the material and keep it easily accessible in long-term memory. By using the review sessions to test their learning of the previous day, students are able to quickly identify what they do know and what they don't know. The daily reviews of material act as a built-in monitoring device. Once they identify the information that is not yet learned, they can work on it that day or on the following day. This allows the students to further condense that chunk of material. Students also find that they are able to evaluate the plan itself through the daily reviews of material. A student who is able to recite much of the material from memory the following day is probably using good strategies during the preparing stage. On the other hand, the student who cannot recite very much of the information the next day may not have selected good prepare strategies. Rather than waiting until the graded exam is returned to evaluate his or her study techniques, the student can modify the study plan before the exam. Finally, the built-in repetition within the Five-Day Study Plan helps students learn material at the recall level of learning, rather than the recognition level, further improving the students' chances of success.

Emphasis on Self-testing

A key compnent of the Five-Day Study Plan is self-testing. Students are encouraged to make up their own tests for each unit of the material, take these tests on the following day (noting answers on a separate sheet of paper), and then take all of the chapter tests again the day before the exam. When developing self-tests, students must identify the information that they think is important or that the instructor may put on the exam. Not only do they need to dig through the material to select this information, but also they must make up their own questions in the same format that the instructor will use. By creating their own multiple-choice true-false, completion, or matching tests, the students have to identify the correct answer as well as options that could be used to distract them. Taking their own tests also helps them monitor their learning and feel more confident about the upcoming exam. Students who use self-testing strategies often go into an exam with less test anxiety or are able to quickly reduce their anxiety level as they recognize some or many of their own test questions on the exam.

Flexible and Easily Modified

One of the reasons that the Five-Day Study Plan works so well is that it is so versatile. It works for any type of subject matter and can be modified to fit almost any student's learning style or any instructor's testing style. The Five-Day Study Plan was originally designed as a general guide to follow when preparing for exams. It is most effective for exams that cover two, four, or eight units of text and lecture material. For an exam that covers three or five units of material, a four-day or six-day plan may be more useful. There is nothing magical about studying for five days before an exam. If a student has an exam covering only two text chapters, the plan can easily be modified. In this instance, I recommend breaking the chapters down into one-half chapter chunks. For exams covering eight text chapters, students would need to work on two chapters on each of the four days and review all chapters on the last day. Once students become familiar with the general principles of this plan, they can easily modify it as necessary. Some students choose to add a day to focus on a difficult chapter or section of material, whereas others eliminate a day if their work schedules interfere. Many students modify the plan in other ways as they discover which time frames and strategies are the most effective for them.


The Five-Day Study Plan provides students with a structured study plan incorporating many of the strategies and techniques that insure that they are actively involved in learning the material. It also provides a framework for a great deal of repetition of the important information and numerous self-testing activities. Students work on material in smaller chunks and focus on integrating all of the material related to a specific topic or concept. Once students learn how to use the Five-Day Study Plan, they often modify it to better accommodate their own learning styles and each of their testing situations. Many students indicate that this plan helps them avoid cramming and keeps them actively involved and motivated as they study. They often report improved test grades and renewed self-confidence. For additional information, please feel free to contact me by e-mail at

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Article Copyright 1996 Dianna L. Van Blerkon. Reprinted with Permission. Originally printed in the Fall 1996 issue of The Keystone Newsletter of the Wadsworth College Success Series .
Website designed by Christian Bladt 2 June 1997