Cramming for Exams or Going to Bed?
In our society, people are busy rushing from one thing to another. In my first weeks of college, I have been in high gear, going to classes, figuring out how to find assignments in Angel, studying, rushing fraternities, and working out. We all seem to work hard and have long days. Many of us, myself included, are lacking something very important. Some say it is one of the most vital aspects to maintaining good health. This elusive thing is sleep! I have been told my whole life that you need eight hours of sleep to be able to do well in school. In order to think clearly and learn new information you need sleep. If this is really true, then procrastination and pulling an “all nighter” is not the way to go when preparing for exams. So, after a semester of studying should I cram for that final or go to bed and hope for the best? Which approach will give me the best chance for success?
I did some Internet research and found many studies heralding the importance of sleep when trying to learn new information. According to Susan Gaidos, the first recored research on sleep was in1924. (Society for Neuroscience) According to studies done by the Sleep Foundation, while sleeping, the brain is still working to lock in new information and events from the past day.(Sleep Foundation) Another study done in 2001 by Matt Wilson of MIT looked at the brain activity of rats while they were sleeping. They also observed brain activity in the same rats while they went through a maze. While the rats slept there was a distinct brain pattern they kept reciting. It was the same pattern that was played as the rats ran through the maze. This would lead one to believe the rat’s brain was replaying the events from the day trying to memorize and retain it. In my opinion this experiment was done well and is reliable. However, you do have to consider that rats and humans have different sized brains and they may not work the same way as they are sleeping.
In this graph it is clear that the average person has a much higher grade point average if they were able to get enough sleep. From personal experience, the longer a person is awake for, the less attentive and precise they are. Therefore, their grades slip. Researchers at Harvard Medical School suggested sleep was a necessary component for learning. In their study, subjects took a visual, motor sequence and motor adaptation test. The grades of subjects taking the test after a full night sleep was compared to the same subjects performance after they were kept awake. Although the grades were improved when re-taking the test, in both scenarios the improvements were highest when they had more sleep. In this experiment the x-variable was the amount of sleep. As the scientists manipulated the x-variable, they were able to see that the results differed.
What is really happening when we sleep?
Scientists from NYU looked into the stages of sleep and suggested that during sleep there are changes in the brain are major factors to retaining and memorizing information. Researchers at NYU School of Medicine showed an increase in brain activity while people were sleeping. They compared the amount of synapses in mice that were kept awake, with mice that were allowed to sleep for hours. They found the mice kept awake had less new synapses formed in same amount of time.(NYU Langone)
In the video located on this page, it will explain how sleep affects the brain. You can find the video by clicking here.
After reading these articles and seeing the numerous titles of articles promoting the benefits of sleep, I am beginning to be convinced that the brain is still working while we sleep and solidifying what we have already learned that day. Now back to cramming vs. sleeping. I would conclude from the research I read that I am likely to learn information by pulling an all nighter, but I am more likely to retain that information for the next day if I study and get a night of sleep before the next day’s exam. One study supporting this was done at UCLA, which showed 535 high school students got worse grades on tests when they had less sleep. Ironically, the students were cramming, trying to actually do well on the exams.
People generally think of sleep as a time to rest. However, in reality it is actually a time to retain and secure into memory events and knowledge learned during the day. I think the key takeaway here is that a) sleep is not a replacement for studying, and b) studying without sleep is not as beneficial as studying with sleep. Therefore, if the choice were cramming without sleep versus studying and sleeping the night before an exam, I would choose the latter.