Cramming For Tests Can Backfire
August 23, 2012

All-night Cramming For Tests Is Counterproductive

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Foregoing sleep to cram for a test may do more harm than good, according to a study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The study found that high-school students who pulled all-nighters to prepare for exams fared worse academically the next day compared with their well-rested peers.

Regardless of how much time a student studies each day, if sleep time is sacrificed in order to study, they are more likely have academic problems the following day, the researchers said.

The problem is the trade-off between study and sleep. While studying is obviously a key contributor to academic achievement, students fail to appreciate that getting adequate amounts of sleep is also important, the researchers said.

The study focused on daily and annual variations of students who sacrificed sleep to study. Because students tend to increasingly tradeoff sleep time for studying in the later years of education, this negative dynamic becomes increasingly prevalent over time.

Whether cramming for a test or plowing through piles of homework, this tradeoff is counterproductive.

"No one is suggesting that students shouldn't study," said UCLA professor of psychiatry Andrew Fuligni, the study's senior author.

"But an adequate amount of sleep is also critical for academic success. These results are consistent with emerging research suggesting that sleep deprivation impedes learning."

Students typically learn best when they keep a consistent study schedule, Fuligni explained.

While a steady pace of learning is ideal, the increasing demands that high school students face may make such a consistent schedule difficult. For example, socializing with peers, working and other academic obligations tend to increase across the course of high school.

As a result, many high school students end up with irregular study schedules, often facing nights in which they need to spend substantially more time than usual studying or completing homework.

"The biologically needed hours of sleep remain constant through their high school years, even as the average amount of sleep students get declines,” Fuligni said.

Previous studies have shown that in 9th grade, the average teen sleeps 7.6 hours per night. That number drops to 7.3 hours in 10th grade, 7.0 hours in 11th grade and 6.9 hours in 12th grade.

"So kids start high school getting less sleep then they need, and this lack of sleep gets worse over the course of high school," Fuligni said.

In the current study, 535 Latino, Asian American and European American students in the 9th, 10th and 12th grades were recruited from three Los Angeles—area high schools. The students were asked to maintain a journal for a 14-day period, recording how long they studied, how long they slept, and whether or not they experienced two academic problems: not understanding something taught the following day in class and performing poorly on a test, quiz or homework.

The researchers found that, for all students, study time became increasingly associated with more academic problems, because longer study hours generally meant fewer hours of sleep. That, in turn, predicted greater academic problems the following day.

"At first, it was somewhat surprising to find that in the latter years of high school, cramming tended to be followed by days with more academic problems," said UCLA graduate student Gillen-O'Neel, who works with Fuligni and was the study's first author.

"But then it made sense once we examined extra studying in the context of sleep.”

“Although we expected that cramming might not be as effective as students think, our results showed that extra time spent studying cut into sleep. And it's this reduced sleep that accounts for the increase in academic problems that occurs after days of increased studying."

As expected, those students who averaged more study time overall tended to receive higher grades in school.

However, "academic success may depend on finding strategies to avoid having to give up sleep to study, such as maintaining a consistent study schedule across days, using school time as efficiently as possible and sacrificing time spent on other, less essential activities,” Fuligni said.

The study´s findings appear in the current online edition of the journal Child Development.