Naureen Aqueel

Burning the midnight oil

Posted on: November 25, 2007

An edited version of this article was published in Dawn Education page, November 25, 2007.

As semester exams approach in most colleges and universities, tensions begin to mount and warning bells ring in the heads of many students. Those who were known as ‘party-animals’ lock themselves in their rooms and burry themselves in their books day and night. Worse still, many students will spend the night before each exam sipping coffee or tea, in an attempt to force themselves to stay up in order to complete the syllabus.

This phenomenon known as the ‘Pre-exam all-nighter’ is a fairly common study technique used by students today. Students deliberately deprive themselves of sleep before exams and stay up all (or most part) of the night studying, revising and cramming their heads with information. This lack of sleep is rarely made up for even in the day time, because a major part of their day is spent commuting to and from the exam venue, giving the exam and then maybe preparing for the next, if they are among the unfortunate ones who have consecutive exams in a row.

So, why is it that students resort to this method of preparing for exams?

Some students find night-time to be the best time to study, primarily because it is peaceful and tranquil then and there are no distractions like a sibling coming up for some help in his homework, a ringing phone, unexpected guests and the ever-so-attractive-at-exam-time family conversations. For Reema Dada, a student at a reputed business institute and one of the top students of her class, staying up till late night during exams or in order to meet deadlines is a common practice. “I find it quite effective, especially because in the day there are a thousand other things to do—people to talk to and lots of distractions!” she says. “It works for me. A couple of hours of sleep is good enough. But, despite that, the mornings aren’t all that great. I have to come back from the exam and sleep a couple of hours.” she adds further.

However, the benefits of studying at night-time is not usually the reason why students stay up at night preparing for an exam the very next day. Had it really been so, they might have used it throughout the semester and given themselves some more hours of sleep than they usually get before exams. Many students go without much quality sleep throughout the period exams last. And this is not just because they prefer studying at night, for, they could very well make up for that sleep during the day. It is more because they feel overburdened with work, since they had been procrastinating studying till the last moment.

“I hate staying up for studying primarily because I am a morning person and I can simply not study at night. But since I am also a procrastinator, hence I do end up studying at the end moment, which leads to fatigue in the morning and I usually end up forgetting whatever I had studied,” admits Aasiya Abdul Rauf, a graduate of one of Pakistan’s top most business institutes. “Personally speaking, I am not in favor of this technique. But, this works for my friends, so I guess it varies from person to person. I would not recommend it. For me, the best time to study is after fajar prayers, as I retain more at that time.”

Being disorganised, procrastinating work and studying and just having no concern for studies until the exam date-sheet knocks them into their senses are among the popular attitudes of youth in our country. Many students spend their entire semesters or academic years being completely aloof from studies, having fun and just ‘chilling out’, only to wake up in to a world of havoc just before the exams. Naturally then, they have to spend their days and nights studying to make up for all the precious hours they wasted.

“I don’t use this technique often, but sometimes I do have to stay up the night before an exam. When I stay up the night just before the exam, I am a bit stressed about it. This helps at times, to speed up my work. Sometimes, I get the work of several days done in one night, though the quality of the work isn’t always the best,” says Hina Salim, a university student enrolled in a social science degree. Although she does not recommend it, she is of the opinion that it works when the student has spent the entire year sleeping and just before the exam realises how much work he/she has to do. “I am forced to use this technique when I don’t do my work on its proper time. The reasons for this delay in work include either being busy with other important stuff or just laziness,” she admits, summing it up quite aptly: “I think doing work at the eleventh hour is a loser’s way of doing things, but if for some reason you have to do things this way…well, then you just have to stay up the night!”

While staying up all night may be effective in helping a student complete the syllabus or assignment on time, how effective is it really in bringing good results?

For Ahmed Saya, who is studying privately for a professional degree and teaches at various schools in the morning, a pre-exam all-nighter is an absolute ‘no-no’. “I once used this technique and it was a bad experience since I was drowsy during the day and could not fully concentrate in the exam,” he says. “I strongly recommend my students never to stay up all night before exams. This method does not help, instead it causes drowsiness and clustering of thoughts during exams. Instead of being helpful, staying up the whole night becomes a burden. It is bad for health, both physically and mentally. I believe this practice should be stopped immediately!”

Ahmed’s views are supported by those of many doctors and psychologists. Researchers have found that lack of sleep impairs the brain’s ability to store new information in memory. Sleep is vital for consolidating recently-learned material in memory. The organization or reorganization of memory or the conversion of learned material into more permanent memory has been found to be taking place primarily during sleep. Therefore, students who take-off for the exam after an intense period of all-night study without any sleep are in great risk of forgetting or missing out in the exam on what they have so laboriously learnt.

And that is not all. Recent research has found that sleep prior to learning is just as important to sleep after learning. So, there goes students’ hope for staying up studying for a long period only to have an hour or so of sleep just before the exam.

The journal Nature Neuroscience published a research conducted by Matthew Walker and colleagues (2007) on the importance of sleep prior to learning. The study compared the performance of two groups on a learning task. One group had slept the previous night as usual and the other group had gone about thrity-six hours without sleep. They were shown a series of pictures of people, landscapes and objects to remember. After two days, when everyone had had two nights of normal sleep, the participants were shown more pictures and they had to identify which they had been shown two days earlier. The group that had not slept before the learning task recognised nineteen percent fewer pictures. The researchers concluded sleep prior to learning was very important to retain learned material for later.

Therefore, burning the midnight oil to complete their syllabus is not such a good idea for students who want to succeed in their exams and learn something from their degrees. Education is supposed to be continuous process that adds to a student’s knowledge and experience. It is not just about passing the exam and resorting to any method to do that. In order to truly learn something students must read, study and practice consistently throughout the semester. Nida Iqbal Umer, a medical student at a private college sums it up quite aptly: “I don’t think this strategy is effective for the long term. It might work for the day of that exam but you don’t gain anything from it. To learn something you have to work continuously all the year round and study side by side. I think it is better if you sleep well and wake up early and revise. And this will only work if you have been studying all the year round and not just before exams.”

So, perhaps its time to banish all-night study and replace it with quality and consistent study all the year round.

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