Have you ever used coffee, energy drinks or prescription stimulants to stay awake all night to study? Many of us do so, especially the night before midterms or finals. After doing so, how do you feel the next day? Do you feel fully alert and aware while taking the test? We mostly study all night because we are too stressed to stop studying or were too busy to study earlier.
However, pulling an all-nighter often hurts, not helps us. A good night’s sleep reinforces what we learned during the day. In addition, it allows the unconscious mind to process the information, which often leads to better understanding; the saying “sleep on it” reflects this.
Sleep deprivation also stresses us and reduces our alertness and mental capacity. If we lack sleep, we may struggle with questions that seem obvious when we get the test back. In addition, we are much more likely to make silly mistakes, like arithmetic errors, when exhausted.
When we study while sleep deprived, we absorb and retain less of the material. We absorb a bit less of memorized information, such as numbers and dates. However, we will quickly lose this knowledge after the exam, which defeats the purpose of the class: to educate us for the long term. More problematically, we have great difficulty absorbing conceptual, non-mechanical information that cannot be easily memorized. For example, an equation is easily memorized, but how and when to use it is not.
As sleep reinforces learning, the less we sleep, the more we have to study. The more time we study, the less time we have to sleep. Thus, the cycle positively reinforces itself. The reverse cycle also positively reinforces itself: if we sleep enough, we have to study less, thus giving us time to sleep. We cannot break the cycle by feeding it; rather, we must be brave and break it willfully.
If we cannot control the cycle and study through the night, we often turn to drugs for assistance. Most commonly, we use caffeine in the form of coffee or “caffeine bomb” energy drinks or pills. While we may not recognize it, caffeine is a stimulant drug like many others. Like all stimulants, it causes a “high” (the period of increased energy) followed by a “down” when it wears off. For “caffeine bomb” energy drinks, the “down” may be a crash, not a gentle descent like with coffee. Short-term caffeine binges often cause increased anxiety and difficulty sleeping, which feed fearful all-night mindless studying.
How did we fall into the cycle at first? If we put off studying until the night before, we have little choice but to stay up all night. To avoid this, have the discipline to study ahead of time. For example, I study three or four days before the exam so I am finished by the day before. Thus, I can sleep well and am less stressed, resulting in better exam performance.
Many of us study late the night before the exam because we are too busy to do it earlier. If you feel this way, examine your priorities. Are you spending a lot of time on things that don’t matter, like playing video games or wandering through Facebook? If so, develop the discipline to work first and play later. If you do not procrastinate but still lack time, remember: don’t spread yourself too thin. If you prioritize extracurricular activities over classes, consider an easier major; after all, you probably aren’t focused on your degree. If you are involved in too many things, you will struggle with all of them. You may want to drop an extracurricular activity or reduce your course load next quarter if you do not have time to study for your classes.
Many of us continue studying until the last minute because we fear the test and feel we must endlessly work to prepare for it. However, we need the courage to realize we have studied enough and stop. Studying due to stress can be recognized by its mindlessness; we flip through notes, read the same words many times over or grind through endless problems. This “studying” is not useful; rather, it is counterproductive and increases stress. If you notice yourself doing this, stop and take a break to clear your head.
Before your next midterm, get a good night’s sleep. Even if you haven’t finished studying, getting enough sleep is just as important, if not more so, than another few hours of studying. You will be happier, less stressed and likely to do better.
To share your thoughts on studying all night, contact WILLIAM CONNER at firstname.lastname@example.org.