Stay Up and Study—or Sleep? What Teens Need to Know

For the October issue of Choices, writer Matthew Hutson took a look at the science of studying, turning research-proven ways to learn into very doable strategies that can help teens retain all that info and combat test stress. (The best part: Some of the tactics actually feel a little more fun or less taxing than last-minute cramming.)

But while we’re hoping teens will take the hint and spread out their study sessions accordingly, there’s no doubt that there will be a time when this age-old question comes up:

“Should I stay up late and study more—or should I go to sleep?”

So we decided to investigate the research on the topic, with a little help from Matt’s last story for us (which explored the science of sleep!). Here, some fascinating facts to pass along to teens who try to pull an almost all-nighter:

  1. You won’t learn when you’re sleepy, anyway. You don’t just feel groggy, forgetful, and clumsy…you actually are! Your ability to think and reason and understand complex stuff becomes seriously impaired. (Get this: A study found that twenty-four hours without sleep leaves you legally drunk levels of duh.) The takeaway: Don’t push through the wall—wake up a little earlier or take advantage of free periods to tackle the material fresh. (In other words: Twenty minutes then will do more good than two hours now.)
  2.  Sleeping helps you understand and remember. There’s a reason we sleep: The body takes that time to repair itself, and the brain uses it to enhance memories and solve problems. In fact, studies show that you’re more likely to remember something later if you get some sleep after learning it! The takeaway: The night before a test, set a solid bedtime. It’ll help you power through the material without procrastinating, plus you’ll have peace of mind: Whatever material you do get through, your brain will lock it in overnight!
  3.  Skip out on sleep and grades suffer. Research out of UCLA showed that studying at the expense of sleep led to poorer academic performance the next day (read: students couldn’t understand lessons in class, and they got worse grades on quizzes, tests, and homework). The takeaway: Look at class time as learning time too—and rest up accordingly. Because the more alert you are all along, the less cramming you’ll have to do in the end . . . right?

But even if teens are convinced that getting into bed is more beneficial that staying up, it might not be easy to do so, especially with all of that test anxiety beating up on their brain. So here are three of the best pre-test sleep tips for your teens:

Sleep Tips for Teens

  1. Don’t study on your bed! Use your bed only for sleeping. If you also use it for reading or talking or working, tucking in won’t act as a trigger for sleep.
  2. Quit caffeine early. Because it kicks around in your system for 6-8 hours, even an after-school energy drink can keep you up at night. Instead, rely on food for energy. Snacking on a whole-grain cereal is a great idea. Its complex carbs are calming, but they’ll also give your brain a steady supply of the glucose it needs to stay focused and alert.
  3. Breathe yourself to sleep. If anxiety keeps you up (or random test facts are floating through your brain), don’t think about how you’re not sleeping or how tired you’ll be the next day. Forget it all by focusing on your breathing—on each breath, think, “Inhale… exhale…” It will relax you mentally and physically.

Tell us: Do you think your teens realize how crucial sleep is for learning? How often do they stay up late studying?