Learning How To Learn? No Thanks Bro, I'll Just Stay Up All Night

When we think of college, what images come to mind. Undoubtedly there will be the image of half naked drunk girls at a house party... okay, maybe that is just what dudes think of. Maybe its the idea of late night trips to the local campus 24/hour restaurant close by or the sports events that are to ensue. Then after all the festivities, you hit the dorm room floor for the famous all-nighter. Ah yes, energy drinks, coffee, cheap pizza, and maybe even some studying. There is something that seems so noble about the all-nighter that says "oh yeah, I am a real college student". But lets get real, in 99% of cases it really just means I procrastinated too much and didn't study like I should have and now I am going to pound my head with these books until something gets in there. Most likely you won't learn hardly anything, freak out during the exam, fail the exam, and then go onto Facebook and cry about how hard your life is. But what if there was a way to work less and get better results? What if there was a way to ace your exams with less stress and still have some free time on your hands? What if I stopped using these very cliche rhetorical questions? Well it turns out that there is, but before we go into that lets take a second to dissect why all-nighters don't accomplish anything.

**WARNING** science will be employed.

So there you sit, 9 PM on the night before the exam. Maybe you have a friend with you or maybe you are rollin' solo Knight Rider style minus the talking car. As the night begins, you start your cramming session. Slowly you start to digest and deposit the facts into your brain. You can think of your brain as a sort of filing cabinet or maybe a USB drive for the modern day. The problem is that you don't get to consciously organize the information. It turns out our brains know we probably suck at organizing that much stuff so they do it for us. But this only happens when you have over 6 HOURS OF SLEEP! So at night a little technician goes through your mess of a daily information intake and sorts through it. "oh look, here are those new Drake song lyrics. I guess we will put those somewhere.... y=mx+b? naaaaahhhh, fug that."


Clinical researchers like to call this "memory stabilization". So without sleep, you get no memory stabilization. Which means not only will you not remember those lyrics very well but you wont remember crap from what you are studying! Lets fast forward to the morning. You walk into your exam looking like you just crawled from the grave. The information in your brain looks almost as bad as this dude's hair.

You open up the exam and the battle begins. The night's intake of caffeine has you shaking like Elvis in an electric chair, but the worst has yet to come. Your brain is about to unleash mass destruction on all the information you tried to put in there. 

So you start to freak out because you have no clue what the hell you are doing. Unfortunately, the brain doesn't know the difference between this modern, fabricated fear of failing your test and the fear that would be caused by running from a bear or fighting a giant cobra. So when you start freaking out, your body starts to release cortisol into your system which then causes the release of epinephrine or adrenaline. Now at first glance you would think "oh yeah, this is gonna pump me up to do well in my exam"! Think again. It turns out this is where our brains take a huge crap on our faces. 

When the brain goes into "Fight or Flight" mode, it diverts all brain function to areas which are important for, you guessed it, fight or flight. While adrenaline enhances these areas, the cortisol/adrenaline duo gives the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex the ol' one two. The hippocampus is involved in forming and retrieving memories and the prefrontal cortex is involved in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. In other words, your brain says "oh hot damn! Something real is about to go down. We need to make sure we can still run like a cheetah and lift cars. Lets see... well I don't think we will need these Drake lyrics or this y=mx+b". Before you know it you have gone completely blank and don't remember anything you have just studied. Now you are in complete breakdown mode as you turn in your failed exam and go home to cry to your Teddy.

Have Your Brain Fight For You

That's not how it has to be though! You can use your brain's chemistry to your advantage! When I first got to the University of Houston to study for chemical engineering, I got exposed to a study program called "The Guaranteed 4.0 Program". Although it was a great program I am always skeptical of these end-all-be-all programs. I figured there had to be more research on this stuff and it turns out there is. By taking this step to learn how my brain works and how I can design a study system based on research that will optimize my brain's ability to obtain and use information, I was able to study less then many of my peers who were as "smart" if not "smarter" than me and still maintain good grades. First I will lay out the steps I took leading up to the exam and then we will go into what brain activity this enhances.

  1. Read lightly over material that is going to be covered in class. Nothing major. I usually don't even write anything down. Think "what the hell are we gonna go over in class".
  2. Actually go to class and attempt to learn something!! I know, I know. You don't learn anything from class and your professor sucks and cant speak english and blah blah blah. At least it will keep you accountable for your class and you will at least think a little about what the hell is going on. I know it is easier said than done. I have skipped classes before too. But at least make the attempt.


  1. After class, Take your notes and condense them down to only the important material. Usually I condense the material down to only one page per lecture and I write them in a certain form. Here is an example from one of my Fluid Mechanics class lectures. 
  2. Before doing your homework, take your condensed class notes and go over them until you know everything in there.
  3. Actually do your hw by yourself without a solutions manual. I know, its weird and shit.
  4. Begin studying for the exam at least a week before. Take those condensed notes and go over them over and over again until you know better than you know your mother. After you have that down then begin going through example book problems and homework problems. Lastly, after you have really learned the info, sit down and do an old exam like a real exam. Give yourself a time limit and see how well you do.
  5. This is the most important step!! Stop studying the night before the exam around 5 or 6 PM. Then go and do something FUN!! We will go into more detail later.
  6. DO NOT DO ANY HEAVY STUDYING THE DAY OF THE EXAM!! The only thing you can do is go over your condensed notes over and over to make sure you know them. Nothing else.
  7. Walk up into that test like you are gonna make it your bitch. Then make that test your bitch.

The Science Behind It

This section is for all you nerds out there like me. Lets get down to the nitty gritty. The system is pretty simple, but it is backed by some good science. The main thing that this emphasizes is repetition. Lets go back to our little technician in our head. Every day when we go to sleep he is looking at all the information that has been absorbed for that day and is sorting out the important things. If over time you start storing the same information, he is gonna go "oh, well this crap must be important, I'll make sure to put it in a safe place". This means when you want to access the info, it will be readily available for use. Where as when you stay up all night and don't sleep your information could be lost in limbo and you will never get to use it. The next thing that is REALLY important is step 7, stopping your study regimen the day before the test and doing something fun! This will produce endorphins from your brain which are your natural stress fighters. When stress starts to peak its head around the corner, the endorphins open up a can of "whoop ass" on it and hulk smash it into nothing. So producing these as close to test time as possible is a fantastic way to fight test anxiety and stress. This will mean that you will not experience the temporary memory lapse that you would feel from an all-nighter. Combine this with the effect with the repetition that has been going on over the past weeks then you have a major force in the fight for better grades. The information will just flow from your brain like smoke out the chimney (R.I.P. MCA). If you put this together with a good nights sleep and a well balanced breakfast then you are ready to kick some serious ass come test time.

Thanks for reading my first post!! If you want any more information on what was in this post, please don't hesitate to contact me at josh.bird.429@gmail.com. Study hard!!

Relevant Links:

and of course Wikipedia!!