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.


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.

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.

Memory Myth: We Use Only 10% of our Brain

A common memory misconception is that we only use a small percentage of our brain; like about 10%. This is untrue and is based on incorrect interpretations about the brain and memory. Movies like Limitless and Momento, while entertaining, sensationalize what happens in the brain and create stories to fill in the gaps (the brain is complicated). People have bought into the idea that we have some untapped potential that has gone to waste. There are no pills or potions that can unlock our ability to learn and remember. It takes paying attention and using memory strategies to have better memory. Find out more about how this belief may have spread in this video.

Additional Resources:

Chew, S.L. (2018, August 29). Myth: We Only Use 10% of Our Brains. Association for Psychological Science.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2009). 50 great myths of popular psychology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Science of Learning Course for College Student Success

This spring semester I am excited to be teaching a new course on effective learning.

The course, Psychology 150: Science of Learning for College Student Success is designed for any undergraduate student to learn how to learn, a skill that is surprisingly absent from any student curriculum, k-12 and college students respectively.

Psychologists in the field of learning science have been honing in on best practices for learning for over a century. Unfortunately, it is only quite recently that these learning methods have been introduced to students and educators. The references below provide wonderful resources on the science of learning. Picking up any one of these would provide clear and accessible information on how the knowledge gained through learning science can lead to breakthrough changes in learning. Two of my favorites are Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain and Understanding How We Learn by researchers and teachers Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki.

person holding open book on table inside room
Photo by Christina Morillo on

While these resources can be quite useful for motivated learners, for many students who have been using the same study and learning methods for years (e.g., reading and re-reading their notes, highlighting key concepts; see this Scientific American article on learning strategies that do and do not work) many learners will require deliberate practice and consistent enforcement of useful learning strategies. For example, long-term memory for new information requires that we think about the knowledge and retrieve it often from memory. Students who are told they need to retrieve what they are learning by testing themselves may greatly benefit from classroom practice.

In PSYC 150 my students will be introduced to learning methods but will also work with course peer-tutors to apply the methods to what they need to learn in their other college courses. In addition, the course will emphasize my LEARN method which incorporates cognitive knowledge, learning strategies, and information on healthy practices outside of the classroom.

Planning a new course is not easy and getting additional resources from my university has been even more difficult. I have other trailblazers to thank though for establishing the course. Cognitive psychologists Ed DeLosh, Anne Cleary, and Matthew Rhodes have been teaching a science learning class now for several years. Rather than getting resources to teach the course at the university-level the best chance for success is to incorporate it into a department. Psychology is a natural fit, but other students need the opportunity too. So I recommend incorporating similar modules into first-year experience courses and to build learning content workshops into already established centers for academic success. These bottom-up strategies take some creative thinking but are starting points to a larger university buy-in.

text on shelf
Photo by Pixabay on

  • Pick up any of these mentioned resources and start reading – see what ideas you can begin using now!
  • Talk about new learning strategies with another student or educator and hold one another accountable for trying some out.
  • If you teach a class, find a way to introduce ideas from the LEARN method or or into a few days of class instruction.


Agarwal, Pooja & Bain, Patrice. (2019). Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. 10.1002/9781119549031.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Mitchell, M. J, & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What Works, What Doesn’t, Scientific American Mind 24, 46 – 53.

Oakley, B. & Sejnowski, T. (2018). Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School, New York, NY: TarcherPerigee Book, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Weinstein Y. & Sumeracki, M. (2018). Understanding How We Learn A Visual Guide, London, UK: David Fulton/Routledge.