College and University Blog

Cramming: Pulling an All-Nighter

While cramming and pulling an all-nighter is not preferable, it is sometimes necessary. Before you begin, understand that it would have been more effective to study earlier and more often. Remind yourself that you will have an opportunity to do that the next time. Give yourself permission to be fallible. In short, lighten up. Our brains work better when we aren’t criticizing ourselves.

Even if the end result of your cramming is a good grade, don’t expect to remember the material later. Cramming is really just a short-term memorization aid. If you will need to know the material later – math equations are an example – you’ll probably need to re-review it after the test. The more courses you have to cram for, the less effective cramming will be. Cramming is not the same as learning. If your studying relies solely on cramming, you are cheating yourself of a true education. This point is especially important if you are cramming for mid-terms. You may be unpleasantly surprised during finals. Without additional review and practice, the material learned in cramming sessions is usually quickly forgotten.

Cramming is more work. It takes longer to learn materials when you do it under pressure. You can’t save time by cramming. Its purpose is only to make the best of your situation. Cram to get by in a course, but vow to do better next time. Cramming might help raise your grade if you have been reasonably attentive in class, have taken fair notes, and have read or skimmed most of the material for the course.

While cramming probably won’t get you an “A,” it can definitely save you from an "F” if you follow a few guidelines for effective cramming. There are only a few steps to short term memory cramming:

  • Determine the Course’s Purpose – Using the outline of the course, write down the main topics and the instructor’s goal for teaching the course. An example of this is: Cellular Biology-cells as the building blocks of all life.
  • Focus on the Course’s Major Topics – Use all of the written material available to determine the major topics of the course. This includes the course outline, texts, handouts, and notes. Use anything and everything available from or about the course.
  • Make Notes that will Jog your Memory - Read and make notes as you read. Focus on making relationships between facts. Facts are only meaningful in a larger picture. When you are making notes, concentrate on relationships.
    • Write out the main topics of the course, and clearly define each.
    • Underneath each main topic, write out all of the subtopics.
    • Clearly define every subtopic. Define the relationship between the subtopic and the course. List a few examples for each.
    • List all facts including names, dates, and formulas and other important information that could be on the test.
  • Memorize the List - Memorize these notes into your mind. Repetition is the most common method used for memorization. If you know the exam is fill-in-the-blank or an essay format, note the correct spelling for all pertinent terms. Remember them, don’t just recognize them.

There are a few additional things you should consider when pulling an all-nighter:

  • While studying all night, eat sugar of some kind (preferably in natural form – like fruit) every hour to keep the brain supplied with glucose. This will keep your energy levels from spiking and then crashing. You can consume caffeine, but it should be consumed at normal levels. Do not overdo the caffeine; it can make you nervous and edgy. Eat small meals with some meat whenever you are hungry, but avoid fatty foods. Dietary fat makes it hard for the brain to utilize glucose.
  • If you become tired, nap. Limit your naps to about 10-20 minutes in length. Set a loud timer to wake you up. Short naps refresh you. Longer naps will cause you to fall into a deep stage of sleep. This may leave you groggy when you awake. Sleep deprivation can slow your reaction time, so reconsider driving to or from campus after an all-night cramming session.
  • Take frequent breaks while studying. In most cases, students are more likely to remember the first and last thing they studied. By taking short breaks in between study sessions, you allow your brain to rest and then reboot itself. This also results in more beginnings and endings than if you were to study all of the material straight through.
  • Study in cooler temperatures. Cold air and harsh lighting are good for keeping you awake, so turn down the thermostat. Drinking ice cold water or splashing your face with cool water can help you stay awake too. Not only is there the obvious shock factor, it will also cause you to use the bathroom more often. This will help keep you awake, though it may take you away from your desk.
  • Sit up straight. Lying on your bed while studying will only remind you of the sleep you’re not getting. Avoid the bed, sofa, or comfy chair and choose a cold, hard desk chair. If you do choose to assume a horizontal study position, make sure you set an alarm before settling in. If you accidentally fall asleep, you will still make it to the exam (albeit unprepared).
  • Take a shower. This is generally refreshing and can be a great eye-opener. The pounding water excites your sensory impulses, while the heat relaxes you so you’re not too tense.
  • Act like you are making a cheat sheet. Don’t use it though. Rewriting information can help you remember it.
  • It has recently been proven that the smell of cinnamon and peppermint can help you stay alert. Chew some gum if you’re feeling worn out.

So do all-nighters work? Yes and no. Pulling an all-nighter is a right of passage. It is a time honored tradition that almost all college students will eventually have to do. Two-thirds of college students reported that they had pulled at least one all-nighter during a semester. You may be able to memorize material to pass an exam, but you are not really learning. Several studies have indicated that pulling an all-nighter instead of spending the night sleeping will most likely result in lower test scores. Pulling an all-nighter is nothing short of sleep deprivation. If done repeatedly, it can have harmful effects on the body and the mind.