If remembering things we need to know for exams or for learning new disciplines were easy, no one would have problems with it, but students face several significant obstacles to remembering, including a persistent lack of sleep and an unrealistic reliance on cramming. Life is busy and stressful for all students, so you have to keep practicing strategies to help you study and remember successfully, but you also must be mindful of obstacles to remembering.
Lack of Sleep
Let’s face it, sleep and college don’t always go well together. You have so much to do! All that reading, all those papers, all those extra hours in the science lab or tutoring center or library! And then we have the social and emotional aspects of going to school, which may not be the most critical aspect of your life as you pursue more education but are a significant part of who you are. When you consider everything you need to attend to in college, you probably won’t be surprised that sleep is often the first thing we give up as we search for more time to accomplish everything we’re trying to do. It might seem reasonable to just wake up an hour earlier or stay up a little later, but you may want to reconsider picking away at your precious sleep time.
Sleep benefits all of your bodily functions, and your brain needs sleep time to dream and rest through the night. You probably can recall times when you had to do something without adequate sleep. We say things like “I just can’t wake up” and “I’m walking around half asleep.” In fact, you may actually be doing just that. Lack of sleep impairs judgment, focus, and our overall mood. Do you know anyone who is always grumpy in the morning? A fascinating medical study from the University of California Los Angeles (n.d.) claims that sleep deprivation is as dangerous as being drunk, both in what it does to our bodies and in the harm we may cause to ourselves and others in driving and performing various daily tasks.
If you can’t focus well because you didn’t get enough sleep, then you likely won’t be able to remember whatever it is you need to recall for any sort of studying or test-taking situation. Most exams in a college setting go beyond simple memorization, but you still have a lot to remember for exams; for example, when Kelan sits down to take an exam on introductory biology, they need to recall all the subject-specific vocabulary they read in the textbook’s opening chapters, the general connections they made between biological studies and other scientific fields, and any biology details introduced in the unit for which they are taking the exam.
Trying to make these mental connections on too little sleep will take a large mental toll because Kelan has to concentrate even harder than they would with adequate sleep. They aren’t merely tired; their brain is not refreshed and primed to conduct difficult tasks. Although not an exact comparison, think about when you overtax a computer by opening too many programs simultaneously. Sometimes the programs are sluggish or slow to respond, making it difficult to work efficiently; sometimes the computer shuts down completely and you have to reboot the entire system. Your body is a bit like that on too little sleep.
On the flip side, though, your brain on adequate sleep is amazing, and sleep can actually assist you in making connections, remembering difficult concepts, and studying for exams. The exact reasons for this are still a serious research project for scientists, but the results all point to a solid connection between sleep and cognitive performance.
Questions to consider:
- How long do you sleep each night on average?
- Do you see a change in your ability to function when you haven’t had enough sleep?
- What could you do to limit the number of nights with too little sleep?
Downsides of Cramming
At least once in their college careers, most students will experience the well-known action phenomenon cramming. See if any of this is familiar: Kelly has lots of classes, works part-time at a popular restaurant, and is just amazingly busy, so they put off serious study sessions day after day. They aren’t worried because they have set aside time they would have spent sleeping to cram just before the exam. That’s the idea anyway. Originally, they planned to stay up a little later and study for four hours from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and still get several hours of refreshing sleep. But it’s Dolphin Week or a sports game or whatever else comes up, and their study session doesn’t start until midnight — they’ll pull an all-nighter (to be more precise, this is actually an all-really-early-morning-er, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it). So, two hours after their original start time, they try to cram all the lessons, problems, and information from the last two weeks of lessons into this one session. Kelly falls asleep around 3 a.m. with their notes and books still on their bed. After their late night, they don’t sleep well and go into the morning exam tired.
Kelly does okay but not great on the exam, and they are not pleased with their results. More and more research is showing that the stress Kelly has put on their body doing this, combined with the way our brains work, makes cramming a seriously poor choice for learning. Your brain simply refuses to co-operate with cramming — it sounds like a good idea, but it doesn’t work. Cramming causes stress, which can lead to debilitating test anxiety; it erroneously supposes you can remember and understand something fully after only minimal exposure; and it overloads your brain, which, however amazing it is, can only focus on one concept at a time and a limited number of concepts all together for learning and retention.
Leading neuroscientist John Medina (2018) claims that the brain begins to wander at about 10 minutes, at which point you need a new stimulus to spark interest. That doesn’t mean you can’t focus for longer than 10 minutes; you just have to switch gears a lot to keep your brain engaged. Have you ever heard a speaker drone on about one concept for, say, 30 minutes without somehow changing pace to engage the listeners? It doesn’t take much to re-engage — pausing to ask the listeners questions or moving to a different location in the room will do it — but without these subtle attention markers, listeners start thinking of something else. The same thing happens to you if you try to cram all reading, problem-solving, and note reviewing into one long session; your brain will wander.