After a long and relaxing summer, the first month back at college tends to take some adjusting and there is nothing like the rude awakening of the first round of prelims to get students back into the Cornell spirit. For many, this means gruelling nights in the library — yet staying up until 2 a.m. and trying to memorize every term that might appear on a prelim may be doing students more harm than good.
Although it may seem obvious, sleep is actually a very important step to the studying process. While some students think the more time spent studying and less time spent sleeping will help them perform well on the exam, this is not the case. According to Prof. Christiane Linster, neurobiology and behavior, the quality of sleep is one of many factors that affect people’s ability to store information.
“Sleep is the time during which information transfers from short term memory to long term memory,” Linster said. “If you don’t sleep, that transfer doesn’t happen, and then you don’t consolidate or put into long-term storage what you have learned,”.
According to Linster, students should consider whether the extra hour spent studying during the nights leading up to the exam is worth it.
Another familiar situation students often find themselves in is when they have two or three prelims in the same week. When faced with this exam marathon, it is common for students to cram the equivalent of a month’s worth of material into one night of intense studying.
However, Linster’s research, which focuses on the neural bases of learning and memory processes in rats and mice, pointed out that cramming is not the most effective way for a brain to store information. Instead, reviewing some material a week or two in advance will not leave you at risk of forgetting what you have studied by the time the prelim comes around.
Besides sleep, another major factor that can affect the brain’s ability to memorize material is stress. Students react differently to stress — some find it helpful to focus on the task at hand without getting distracted, while others find themselves getting extremely overwhelmed and unable to work as efficiently.
There could be a scientific explanation as to why certain students perform better under stress than others. “Stress is not a linear relationship with memory capacity,” Linster said. “A little bit of acute stress once in awhile actually enhances memory performance. A lot of long term stress will be bad for memory performance.”
Since the first round of prelims has just begun, it’s not too late to put some of this advice to practice. There is no magic formula to the best way of studying, but some scientifically proven methods that will help students perform better is as simple as getting enough sleep, not cramming the night before and staying healthy.