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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Student Counselling

Are Late Nights Worth It?

If you haven’t looked at the course material until the day before the exam then chances are you’ll perform better with the benefit of a night’s learning, despite having to drink multiple coffees and pinch yourself repeatedly to stay awake.

Not that caffeine provides a full answer. I well remember staying up until 4am studying for a Company Law exam and taking a handful of No-Doz tablets and a wee nap as I waited for them to kick in.

Problem is they didn’t! I woke at 9am, 30 minutes before the exam. I sprinted down from Kelburn, sat the exam and got 50 per cent. No wasted effort there, but definitely a high risk strategy!

So what do we know about the impact of sleep deprivation on exam performance? Like most interesting questions the answers are not simple.

Chances are we will feel a bit blah, be grouchier than usual and less tolerant of distractions—look out anyone removing a cough lolly wrapper in the exam! Deteriorated performance is likely on routine tasks—easy marks may be lost making mistakes writing down learned material. Less affected will be performance on demanding tests of deductive critical thinking—when we actually have to think. Offsetting this, “Executive Functions” are impaired by sleep. These include our ability to deal with novelty, cope with changing situations, produce innovative solutions, ignore irrelevant information, multitask, communicate effectively and control our tempers.

So the risk is that we will misunderstand the question, exhibit stunning critical thinking in an irrelevant fashion, then jump up and biff our cold-stricken cough-lolly munching neighbour on the nose.

Confused? I’m not surprised! Suffice to say, studies have clearly demonstrated that sleep restriction worsens neurocognitive and academic performance.

Studying late the night before an exam so often reflects the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. The anxious student stays up late until the anxiety is overtaken by fatigue and a sense of perspective. They eventually get their exam results and are none the wiser as to whether the late night helped or hindered them.

So they do it all again next exams…

In fact, research suggests that sleep deprivation may bias students towards believing they have performed better than they have. One study compared students deprived of sleep for 24 hours with those sleeping normally. The sleep deprived group scored at 60 per cent of the level of the non-sleep deprived group; but nevertheless believed themselves to have worked harder and scored better.

Here comes the grandmotherly advice. Study consistently through the trimester to keep those anxiety levels in check. Continue to engage in aerobic exercise and in other valued activities—you are a human being, not a machine!

Here is a novel idea. What about having the night off before the exam and doing something just for you.

Just don’t stay up too late!

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