By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
Studying for a test requires focus and a hefty amount of cognitive energy. If you’re exhausted, studying is obviously far, far more challenging.
The real strategy for studying when you’re tired is to … not get yourself in the position where you need to do that.
The real strategy is to use good time management, spaced repetition, and interleaved practice – days in advance – so that you’re not cramming. Then, the night before your test, get a good night’s sleep with low anxiety, and in the morning, do a quick review before you head into school.
But in reality, life happens. And for one reason or another, you’re going to find yourself in the position where you’re exhausted and overwhelmed as you sit down to begin a study session. In these moments, lectures of “I told you so – you should have started studying earlier!” are useless.
In these less-than-ideal moments, you need strategies for how to study when you’re tired. The list below is a good place to start.
How to study when you’re tired: 5 tips
1. Keep study sessions to 45 minutes or less.
When you’re tired, shorten the length of your study session. Forty-five minutes of focused thinking is significantly better than 90 minutes of sleepy, unfocused studying. After 45 minutes, take a short active break (active= get up and move) and see if you can handle another 30 minutes or so. If not, wrap it up.
2. Cut the fluff and focus on the right kind of material.
When you’re tired, you won’t have enough energy to sustain a long study session (see tip #1). Therefore, you will need to narrow down your study materials to include only the essentials so that you can maximize every moment of your 45-minute session.
To do this, organize your study materials by your level of understanding. Use the following three categories:
- a) I know this
- b) I kind of know this
- c) I have no idea
When you’re tired, begin with group b above (I kind of know this). The reason is that you are already a few steps into the learning process for this material, and so it won’t take as much cognitive or physical energy to bring it home. Save group c material (I have no idea) for when you’re more awake.
3. Study in a new location.
Novelty (newness) is a motivator, and when you’re studying while tired, you need all the external motivation you can get. While I’m always preaching the benefits of having a dedicated homework station, I argue that taking your study sessions to a new location can provide just the amount of energy and stimulation you need. A 2017 Journal of Robotics study investigating the connection between motivation and novelty reports that “a strong correlation exists between intrinsic motivation and novelty detection (ND) allied with the property of stimuli.”* Follow the science, folks.
Here are some ideas for unconventional places to study.
4. Study in a group.
Group study sessions work best as a final step in the study process. In other words, I usually only recommend studying in groups after you have studied the material by yourself. But when you’re exhausted and need a quick fix, studying with a group can be a good strategy. Here are some essential tips for studying in a group.
5. Don’t get too comfortable.
If you’re struggling to stay awake during a study session, it’s best not to get too comfortable. Dressing in super comfortable clothing and curling up with blankets in bed is a guaranteed way to trigger your sleep hormones.
Instead, dress in your regular clothing, as if you were headed to school or somewhere public. Sit upright in a chair that’s not a cushioned recliner. Keep the lights on bright. Arrange yourself and your environment in a way that contradicts sleep, and you’ll be more likely to stay awake.
Again, the real strategy is to set yourself up for study sessions that are intentional, well planned, and energetic. The magic bullet for doing so is to use good time management skills and legitimate study strategies.
… But … if for some crazy reason you have to pull an all-nighter (please don’t ever pull an all-nighter!!), here’s the right way to do it.
* Siddique, Nazmul & Dhakan, Paresh & Rano, Inaki & Kasmarik, Kathryn. (2017). A Review of the Relationship between Novelty, Intrinsic Motivation and Reinforcement Learning. Paladyn, Journal of Behavioral Robotics. 8. 10.1515/pjbr-2017-0004.