I was inspired by this flippant blog post from Bethesda World News to write about the difference between smart studying and just cramming answers into your head to help you pass an exam. Obviously, there is a big difference, and this difference becomes quite apparent when you’re talking with someone who knows only enough to get by (the slacker student who is convinced they have it all figured out) and someone else who actually understands the material (the professor — hopefully).
Let’s start by considering just how complex and fascinating a thing our own memories are. Memory is not an on-off switch — it’s not like we either remember something or we don’t. First of all, there are several different types of memory. But think about the times when you know something but you just can’t recall it at a particular moment. Why does this happen? I’m going to be completely honest here: I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. But I do have what I consider to be a reasonable hypothesis.
When a piece of information enters your brain it can go any number of places. Perhaps you will disregard it entirely. Maybe you will give it a small amount of your attention and store it very temporarily (such as for the duration of a conversation). If it’s important, hopefully the information will get processed and stored somewhere ready to be converted into a long-term memory. But just because a piece of information is stored doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to access it at will.
In some cases, we may not know enough about the information to know that it’s relevant and worthy of recall in a particular instance. In others, we may not even be aware that we’ve learned anything related to the task at hand. It is only through a solid understanding of a subject that we can develop the neural network to connect all the random bits of information that we’ve ingested on a subject to make good use of our memories.
Here’s where the difference between the slacker who crammed right before the exam and the professor who has been studying this subject for years is thrown into sharp relief: the slacker may be able to spit back the correct answer when posed the exact question that he is used to, while the professor actually knows enough to answer questions that are only loosely related to it. Why? Because the slacker has ruthlessly created only one pathway to the information in his head; the professor has developed a vast network of interconnected ideas, any one of which can be used to tap into the main source of knowledge on a subject.
The slacker method may work for an exam, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be asked those same types of questions in “the real world,” thus rendering his study efforts useless after the course is over. Maybe he won’t care (he is, after all, a slacker), but many of us do. We go to college not for the degree but for the education. For this reason, we seek understanding first and good grades second, and so we study smart.
 I have been told this happens when we sleep, which is a good reason to make sure you get plenty of rest when studying for finals.