Last Minute Learning: Assessing the All-Nighter

We’ve all been there: you walk into class with an utterly splendid lesson plan. What discussion activities you have planned! What exciting, insightful, yet accessible questions you have prepped! What engrossing and provocative issues you have to discuss! You can hardly wait to begin. Let’s go!

And then it all just fizzles out. Your activities engender piecemeal effort. Your questions are met with monosyllabic answers. Your issues attract tepid attention, never mind interest. Emerging from the class feeling a lot more like a dentist than an educator, you ask yourself, “What happened? Why did that all go wrong?”

Quite often, our first instinct is to blame ourselves. And hey, sure, maybe. It’s possible that your lesson was ill-planned, or ill-suited for that particular group of students. Happens to the best of us sometimes. But it also might not be your “fault” (I’d use that word cautiously, because it’s really not about heaping reproach on someone/thing, but discerning the causes to demonstrable effects).

You probably woke up hours before your class, reviewed your lesson plan and enjoyed a delightful cup of coffee beforehand (at least this is a Bok Center recommendation!). But your indifferent students might have been groggy instead; they could have just rolled out of bed and come to class running on minimal to no sleep. And it might have been the best of academic intentions that put them there, half-conscious and unresponsive in your class – maybe they had pulled an all-nighter!

photo by CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr

The Sixty Second Science blog over at Scientific American has recently called attention to research showing that the good of any extra knowledge gained by sacrificing sleep in order to study is negated by the detriments of less slumber. 500 high school students were asked to keep track of how much they studied and slept over a two week period, as well as to note any “negatives” they encountered, such as difficulties comprehending material taught in class. The results were conclusive – students who forfeited sleep for study reported considerably more academic problems than those who kept a more regular schedule. Cramming, in other words, just doesn’t work.

I’m convinced. (Although in high school, I had a friend who would actually eat pages from textbooks when pulling an all-nighter. He claimed this strategy was highly effective. Where’s the research grant for that study?)

What can we do to discourage all-nighters among our students? (I’ll leave aside strategies to discourage book eating for another time.) All-nighters are typically in response to the stress of having a test the next day. While getting rid of tests might be going a bit far, there certainly is something to be said for employing more effective methods of student assessment than just relying on the traditional midterm and final exam. There are a number of benefits to spreading out other types of graded activities, such as smaller tasks or projects, throughout the semester. First, by dispersing the assessment, you’re also dispersing the stress for your students. Not only are you decreasing the likeliness of last-minute cramming, you’re also making more of your class “count” for students just looking for a better grade – now they know their mark is in on the line (to some extent) every week. By the same token, you’re working to curtail the “Is this going to be on the exam?” attitude, in which students judge the relevance and worth of course material in direct proportion to its likelihood of appearing on a test. You also get a much better idea about how your students are doing – what’s working (and not working) in the classroom when you still have a chance to make changes. Fewer nasty surprises for both the students and the teacher on that proverbial final exam day? That’s not going to keep me up at night.

This post was written by Stephen A. Walsh.

3 thoughts on “Last Minute Learning: Assessing the All-Nighter

  1. While i agree with you that spreading out grading over the course of the semester in smaller tasks helps more of the grade count. I tend to think all-nighters are brought on by the jitters of tests and exams especially since no one likes to fail.

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