Should you cram or sleep? What to do to pass your exams

Date: November 2021

Author: Louise Sinclair

According to the Sleep Foundation, college students should be getting at least eight hours of sleep every night. During exam season, fewer than 10% of students manage to hit that target, with most students getting by on an average of six hours per night.

With so much on the line, the pressure to sacrifice sleep for extra study time is understandable. However, when it comes to your dental exams, here’s how those all-night cramming sessions can actually sabotage your study efforts and what to do instead.

Sleep and study

Getting enough quality sleep is essential to every aspect of your physical and mental health, not to mention your cognitive performance. When you sleep, your brain cycles through a number of stages. With each cycle, you spend more time in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, where most of your dreaming happens. This is also the stage where your brain processes new information you’ve learned throughout the day and “commits” it to memory. 

When you cut your sleep short, you cut off those longer stages of REM sleep at the end. If you’re studying for your exams, that means it’s harder for you to process and retain what you’re trying to learn. That’s not the only way lack of sleep can affect your studying.

Sleep deprivation – the enemy of exam success

Sleep deprivation can be caused by not getting enough sleep, by not getting quality sleep, or both. Just one all-nighter can cause the equivalent cognitive impairment of a 0.05% blood alcohol concentration – almost the legal drink-driving limit. 

The effects might be more noticeable after an all-nighter, but you can also experience sleep deprivation from getting “not quite enough” sleep on a regular basis. Getting just one hour less sleep than you need every night for a week can have the same cognitive impact as one all-nighter. So if you’re in the majority of students that get six hours of sleep instead of eight during exam season, you’re more than likely sleep-deprived!

What does this mean for your exams? Well, sleep deprivation causes symptoms like: 

Impaired creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, logical reasoning, working memory, recall, attention, concentration, and other skills/functions that are essential for dental exam success.

Increased stress levels. Exam season is stressful enough, but sleep deprivation makes it even worse. That makes it even more difficult to sleep, getting you stuck in a vicious cycle. 

Weakened immune function. That means you’re more likely to get ill – the last thing you need on exam day! 

On the other hand, students who consistently get enough quality sleep are proven to perform better in exams than their sleep-deprived peers. In one study, better quality and longer duration of sleep correlated with better grades. It wasn’t enough for students to simply get a good night’s sleep the night before the test though; better performance was only associated with consistent good sleep habits over the preceding weeks.

How to sleep well and study better

  1. Get at least eight hours
  2. The most important habit is to get enough sleep. The Sleep Foundation says that college-aged adults often need more sleep than the average adult. Eight hours is the bare minimum, and some students need as many as ten hours. Aim for eight at the very least, but pay attention to your body. If you’re not feeling rested, aim for more.

  3. Be consistent
  4. Thanks to your natural circadian (24-hour) rhythms, your body and mind function at their best in a predictable daily routine. Try to go to bed, sleep and wake up at the same time every day -- even on your days off -- to regulate your natural sleep-wake cycle.

  5. Create a wind-down routine
  6. In the spirit of routine, create a relaxing wind-down routine every night. For example, you could do yoga, take a shower, and then get into bed and read a book. Repeat this every night and, as your body starts to associate it with sleep, you’ll notice that it gets easier and easier to wind down.

  7. Take a nap
  8. If you’re really flagging during a study session, your learning ability is probably suffering too. A nap was found to improve memory scores on a test in one study, suggesting that a quick sleep could help to refresh your mind and consolidate all that learning. Keep it short though; any more than 20-30 minutes and you could find it difficult to fall asleep later on.

  9. Work smarter, not harder
  10. Cramming is generally not the best way to learn, even if you’re not pulling all-nighters! You can only focus for so long before cognitive fatigue sets in, after which point your ability to process and retain information starts to rapidly decline. Instead of marathon study sessions, set aside blocks of 2-3 hours at a time, and make sure to recharge in between.

  11. Avoid late-night study
  12. Studying right before bedtime keeps your mind active when it should be winding down. If you’re using a laptop or tablet, the blue light from these devices will also interrupt the release of melatonin, the hormone that brings on sleepiness. You can prevent this by switching off blue-light devices and closing your textbooks at least two hours before bedtime.

  13. Keep books out of the bedroom
  14. If possible, study anywhere but your bedroom. It’s harder to wind down when your mind associates your sleeping environment with hard work, study and exam stress, so save your bedroom for rest only.

  15. Don’t overdo the coffee
  16. If your study sessions are powered by lattes, or you take the edge off your study stress with a beer or a cigarette, you might be sabotaging your sleep. Instead, when its time to sleep, try a drink that may be calming and help you sleep. Try to limit your caffeine and have your last coffee or energy drink at least eight hours before bedtime. Even though it makes you feel drowsy, alcohol reduces sleep quality, so stick to one or two drinks at most, and steer clear altogether the night before an exam.

Making sure that you’re well-rested for your exams begins long before the big day, so start building these good habits as far in advance as possible to set yourself up for success. We wish you the best of luck!

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