Studying isn’t always stimulating — especially after a long day in class or at work, when your brain feels ready to shut down.
If simply staying awake while studying seems harder than quantum physics, try one of the following nine strategies to help you be alert and focused.
Movement is a well-documented energy booster. In addition to helping you stay awake, it may also help relieve exam-time stress and improve your ability to actually remember what you study.
A 2018 studyTrusted Source of students of all ages — ranging from elementary school to college — found that 10 minutes of walking outdoors significantly improved students’ performance with memory, feature detection, and mathematical problem-solving tasks.
Aim to take a short break every 30 to 50 minutes to walk, dance, or do a few jumping jacks.
Our bodies are attuned to respond to environmental signals such as light and darkness. While the relationship between light and sleep is indirect — it’s possible to fall asleep in a well-lit room or to stay awake in darkness — light is a cue that can help promote wakefulness.
According to a 2017 study of zebrafish, this tendency may come down to a protein that’s activated when we’re exposed to light.
When it comes to studying, try to mimic a daytime environment with plenty of light. If it’s dark outside, a single lamp or overhead light might not be enough to keep you alert.
It might be tempting to get comfortable while studying, but it won’t help you stay awake.
Lying down is associated with increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, known for its role in functions such as “rest and digest.”
In contrast, sitting upright is associated with sympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system controls functions such as alertness.
A 2014 studyTrusted Source analyzed whether sitting upright or lying down affected performance on a test of working memory.
The authors reported that when participants were lying down for the test, their self-reported sleep quality negatively affected their performance. Sleep quality didn’t affect performance when participants were sitting upright.
How does this relate to studying? If you’re feeling tired, sitting up may help you stay focused and alert.
You may also want to try standing up instead of sitting while you’re studying. Standing and moving around from time to time may help boost your blood circulation. This, in turn, may prevent you from getting sleepy.
If you live in a dorm room or shared apartment, the most convenient place to study might also happen to be the place where you usually sleep.
But it’s best to avoid studying in any place that you associate with sleep, which could leave you feeling drowsy.
When possible, study somewhere else, such as a library, coffee shop, or a dedicated, well-lit area of your home away from your bedroom.
By keeping studying and sleep areas separate, you’ll also be making it easier to turn off your brain when it’s time to go to bed.
Fatigue or sleepiness is sometimes a sign of dehydration. But dehydration won’t just drain your energy — it may also disrupt cognitive functions, making studying difficult.
A 2010 reviewTrusted Source examined dehydration, including its effects on brain function. The authors reported that mild to moderate levels of dehydration might impair short-term memory, concentration, mathematical ability, alertness, and perception.
To ensure that you don’t doze off while studying, stay hydrated throughout the day. This is especially important if you’re physically active or live in a warm climate.
While how much you should drink varies from person to person, aim for around half a gallon per day.
What and how much you eat affects your energy levels.
While it may be tempting to treat yourself while studying, it won’t help you stay awake. Sugary snacks and junk food can make your blood sugar spike and then crash, leaving you feeling sluggish.
On the other hand, if you forget to eat or eat too much, you might find yourself dozing off.
Instead, aim for a diet of small but frequent meals. Make sure each meal contains protein, a complex carbohydrate, and a source of healthy fat. Some examples include:
- Protein: whitefish (like cod, halibut, tilapia, flounder), lentils, beans, white-meat poultry, peanut butter, tofu, lean beef, eggs, Greek yogurt
- Complex carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, peas, oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread
- Healthy fats: avocado, salmon, eggs, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, nut butter
Reading and rereading class notes or a textbook might not be enough to keep you awake, let alone absorb information.
Keep yourself awake — and get the most out of your study sessions — by using active study techniques. To do this, try one or more of the following:
- Transfer information to a map, cue card, diagram, chart, or other visual.
- Read out loud.
- Teach the material to a classmate.
- Do practice exercises.
- Create your own examples and practice exercises.
Avoid nodding off by talking through the material with a classmate, friend, or study group.
Not only is social studying more motivating and stimulating, it can also offer new perspectives and interpretations of class materials. Ask someone to explain a confusing concept to you, or solidify your own understanding by teaching the material to a peer.
If you prefer to study individually, you might find that simply studying in the presence of other people makes it easier to avoid falling asleep.
Sleep plays an important role in mood, attention, motivation, and memory — all of which affect learning. It’s no surprise then that poor sleep is associated with poor academic performance.
In fact, making sleep a priority — both in the short- and the long-term — might be the most effective way to stay alert when you’re studying.
In a 2019 study, students were presented with detailed factual information over 5 hours. Midway through the 5-hour period, they either took a 1-hour nap, watched a film, or crammed the information. They were tested on the material 30 minutes after the end of the learning period and 1 week after the end of the learning period.
The researchers found that after 30 minutes, students who had either crammed or napped were able to recall the information better than students who had watched a film. However, after 1 week, only the students who had napped maintained better recall of the information.
Make time for naps, and stick to a regular sleep schedule to help make studying easier.
Staying alert and focused can be challenging when you need to study, especially at the end of a long day. But there are ways to boost your wakefulness and avoid nodding off in the middle of a study session.
The key is to adopt healthy habits, like staying hydrated, eating regular balanced meals, getting exercise, and prioritizing your sleep whenever possible.
Other strategies that may help include studying with friends in a well-lit area, avoiding your bedroom, and using active learning techniques.