It’s 4 a.m. You’re hunched over your desk. You’re bleary-eyed. And your legs are shaking. No, you’re not a reclusive genius trying to unlock the mathematical formula for cold fusion: You’re just an average student begging your brain to memorize the quadratic formula so you can achieve the absolute bare minimum to graduate.
For all you fellow procrastinators, here’s a tip for your all-nighter strategy: The key to pulling a successful all nighter is to not have to pull an all-nighter in the first place. “All-nighters are probably the worst strategy for college students to study and do work. For most individuals, sleep deprivation has a negative impact on attention and cognitive performance,” says David Earnest, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University. “Although the data are somewhat controversial, studies have shown that for each hour of sleep deprivation, there’s a one-point drop in IQ, in terms of cognitive performance.”
To that end, a recent study found that among college students, “night owls” struggle the most, academically speaking. “Many students feel that they can do everything and keep pushing themselves,” Aaron Schirmer, an associate professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University told DailyCal. “Students are pulling all-nighters, and they think they can perform.”
Earnest believes that the problem with cramming a bunch of information into your brain overnight is that it doesn’t activate your long-term memory, which is the part you really need to retain facts. “Short-term memory associated with all-nighters extinguishes rapidly,” says Earnest. “If you don’t re-use information, it disappears within a period of a few minutes to a few hours.”
That’s why it goes without saying that you shouldn’t wait until the night before to start studying for your exam. “The optimal study method is to stay on top of things and prepare by studying in small chunks (20 to 30 minutes), multiple times per day, three to four days in advance of the test,” explains Earnest. “By going through information numerous times, this allows the brain to move those facts to long-term memory for better recall.”
But the ineffectiveness of the all-nighter doesn’t stop there. According to Earnest, based on our body’s normal circadian rhythm, the brain’s performance significantly decreases as the day progresses. This means that by studying all night, you’re essentially fighting against your body’s natural clock. “Peak cognitive efficiency occurs much earlier in the day,” says Earnest. “When studying for exams, I recommend avoiding all-nighters.” Instead, he advises getting at least four hours of sleep during your normal bedtime and one to two hours of additional studying before your exam.
That way, at the very least, you won’t be so tired that you feel drunk during your final.