No more all-nighters: Students prefer cramming to learn but at what cost?

Any learner can imagine when a lack of time, planning, or the just “life got in the way” led to pulling an all-nighter. Visit a college dorm or the campus library and you will encounter students forsaking sleep to study. Under the hum of fluorescent lights you will find over caffeinated and sleep-deprived students with blood shot eyes cramming the night before an exam. And can you blame them?

I’ve taught hundreds of students who fail to plan out their learning over-time. A recent study of millennial college students found they had hap hazard study habits which included poor planning and cramming. If these less than stellar learning habits weren’t bad enough, the students lacked self-awareness about their studying. They actually believed they put enough time into studying to succeed, pointing to the normalization of cramming in college learning. In my Psychology courses, one of the first lessons I teach students includes essentials of how to learn. Students self-report that go-to strategies for learning include reading and re-reading their textbooks and/or notes and highlighting potentially important information. See Dunlosky et al., 2013 for research on the most commonly used studying techniques and check out the table below.

Do you see any strategies that you use?

Distributed practice, or breaking study sessions into smaller time-periods in the weeks or days leading up to an exam is the best tool for long-term learning. Notice I said weeks or days? Again, most of us fall short of this style of planning but I’m here to convince you that poor learning is perhaps secondary to the real damage done from all-nighters.

The real cost is losing sleep. College students are some of the most sleep deprived groups. This HuffPost video explains that only 11% of college students get an adequate amount of sleep. College students love to talk and think about sleep; when was the last time you thought about taking a mid-day nap? Sleep is your super power and can be the key to health, not to mention college and life success. Sleeping between 7 and 8 hours each night and going to bed and waking at the same time are among the best strategies. It is easier said than done. Like any behavioral change, I’m looking at you “land of eat better and exercise more,” changing sleep patterns is hard work. It often requires implementing related strategies to bring about the sleep change needed.

Here is just a short list:

Stay on schedule
Keep bedroom cool
Maintain nightly rituals like a hot shower
Do not nap after 3:00 pm
Cut back on caffeine
Only associate the bed with sleep
No device use at least 1 hour before sleep

That is a pretty hefty list so don’t try to change all of your sleep habits at once. Pick one or two that are easier for you to control. Maybe your bed has to double as a study space or you work a job in which you find yourself napping after three. Instead, target things you think are an easier fix, like adding a fan to your bedroom or sticking to a no caffeine before bed rule.

Still sound impossible to change your sleep habits? Another powerful benefit to sleep is that it improves thinking and memory. Many studies have been used to demonstrate powerful effects of sleep on learning. Through a process called consolidation, memories become more durable and long-lasting after a full night sleep compared to learning when sleep deprived. If fear is a factor for change, people have even been known to die from extreme sleep deprivation! This Ted-Ed video describes terrifying accounts of individuals who have attempted long stints of sleep-deprivation. Not only have individuals’ memories and other cognitive function like attention suffered from days without sleeping, but their personality and sanity became distorted too.  

College is hard, but with a focus on learning strategies and sleep we could take so much of the pressure off the process. The next time you suffer through an all-nighter make a commitment to change your behavior. Tell a friend and make a pact to plan out studying and hold one another accountable to stick with it. Your future self will thank you.

Resources

Chitiga, M., Kaniuka, T., & Ombonga, M. (2019). How do millennials learn?: Implications for higher education pedagogy. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, 15(1), 29-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.4018/IJICTE.2019010103

Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning. American Educator, 37(3), 12-21.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

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