As the end of the fall semester looms ever larger, students across the country are hunkering down for the dreaded all-nighters: the non-stop cramming sessions that typically precede final exams. It’s a college tradition, one that many students consider a badge of honor. Staying up all night is a feat of endurance only the young relish. Unfortunately, all that extra studying is for naught. It turns out, cramming aside, a lack of sleep is the single best predictor of poor performance on exams. Dr. Philip Alapat, medical director of the Harris Health Sleep Disorders Center and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, suggests that students study throughout the semester instead of cramming at the last minute. Sure, and pigs should fly, Dr. Alapat.
I jest, but the point remains: it may be unrealistic to expect college students to be better planners. Deciding to be well prepared isn’t like throwing a switch. You can’t simply transform into a well-organized, contentious student overnight. It takes hard work, discipline, and time. But this new evidence may give students a push in the right direction. Realizing all of their hard last-minute work is being sabotaged by a lack of sleep may be enough to persuade some students to try harder more consistently, even if it’s just at the semester’s end.
Ideally, college-aged students should be getting 8-9 hours of sleep every night. Of course, many get much much less. This is true throughout the semester, not just at exam time. One study showed that just 11% of college students are getting enough sleep. And prolonged sleep deprivation is the worst kind. Add one part caffeinated drink, one part recreational drug, one part alcohol, and the occasional all nighter, and you have a recipe for academic disaster. But Dr. Alapat’s suggestion to just be a better studier aside, there are plenty of things a stressed out end-of-the-semester student can do to improve his performance. Especially now, when there are still a few weeks left before Winter break.
Dr. Alapat: “Memory recall and ability to maintain concentration are much improved when an individual is rested. By preparing early and being able to better recall what you have studied, your ability to perform well on exams is increased.” So maybe students don’t have to be perfect all semester long, provided they get a good sleep for a few nights before finals. It’s that immediate sleep deprivation that really affects memory—the fog you feel all day after a night of two hours’ sleep. So, students, take a few weeks at the end of the semester to prepare. Plan your time a little more carefully, skip that party, hunker down, get a decent mattress, get a good night’s sleep, and outperform your peers.