Think all-nighters help on tests? Experts say no.

Author Lorna Liu, Woodbury High School
Lorna Liu, Woodbury High School
Photo By: Dymanh Chhoun
“Becoming sleep-deprived causes a change in the brain, which also affects their behavior and memory. Your brain doesn’t necessarily shut down when you lack sleep – It just stops functioning properly.” -- Roxanne Prichard, University of St. Thomas psychology professor

When a test is coming up, many students hit the books a day before. Cramming, they stay up until the crack of dawn.

But new research suggests all-night study sessions may not be the best choice when studying for a test, because of the relationship between memory and sleep

Olivia Alston, 14, of Woodbury, decided to stay up all night to study for her AP human geography chapter test this past school year.

“That was a horrible night,” Alston said. “I could barely think, and I was stuffing my brain with things I couldn’t remember five minutes later.”

When a test is coming up, many students hit the books a day before. Cramming, they stay up until the crack of dawn.

But new research suggests all-night study sessions may not be the best choice when studying for a test, because of the relationship between memory and sleep. Sleep is necessary for your memory to absorb new concepts.

This is because information is committed to memory through three steps in your brain: acquisition, consolidation and recall, according to a website aimed at educating the public about sleep by the Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation.

Acquisition is when your brain receives new information. Consolidation processes a memory so it becomes stable, or a part of your memory, and happens unconsciously during sleep. Recall is the ability to remember that information.

During sleep, short-term memories are converted into long-term memories, according to the website. When sleeping, brain cells forms new connections. Those connections program your brain to retain a memory. Your brain takes in all the information you absorb in a day – everything from the sound of birds singing in the morning to what you learned that day at school – and filters the important knowledge from unimportant and commits it to memory.

But many teens swear all-nighters help them get better grades.

“If I ever have to cram for something again, I’d probably pull an all-nighter,” said David Fan, 17, of Bloomington. “I don’t feel like (all-nighters) affect me that much anyways.”

Roxanne Prichard, 33, a University of St. Thomas psychology professor who did a study on adolescent sleep for the National Sleep Foundation, disagrees with Fan.

“Becoming sleep-deprived causes a change in the brain, which also affects their behavior and memory,” said Roxanne Prichard. “Your brain doesn’t necessarily shut down when you lack sleep – It just stops functioning properly.”

Alston said after staying up all night she was tired and didn’t feel like taking her AP human geography test.

“I couldn’t concentrate,” she said. “When studying, I felt like I understood it at first, but then I couldn’t connect things in the end.”

When sleep-deprived, overworked brain cells don’t function normally. “We lose our ability to access previously learned information,” according to Harvard’s sleep website.

In a recent Facebook poll I conducted with my friends, 37 out of 70 students said they have participated in all-nighters right before a test.

“I don’t pull all-nighters mainly because I can’t stay up that long and I’d rather sleep than stay up all night – by that point I either know the information or I don’t,” said Anna Xue, 15, of Woodbury.

Rebecca Xu, 17, of Shoreview, said if teachers continue to load on homework as they did during her last midterms, teens will continue to pull all-night study sessions.

“I just didn’t have enough time to study for all the tests. Five tests in two days is a lot,” Xu said.

Prichard recommends that students start studying at least a week before the test. Study at least four hours before the test, about six to eight times throughout a week, not all at once. The amount of time you should study depends on how difficult the subject is.

“All-nighters are not beneficial at all. You become weary and you don’t function as well,” Prichard said.

“Even with all the information about sleep and memory, I know no one would stop pulling all-nighters,” Xu said. “It’s just so tempting.”

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