While flashcards and notes can be really great study tools, they’re actually not the most important resource in your academic toolbelt when it comes to getting the maximum return on investment for your study time. Research shows that in many cases, sleep, or lack thereof, can have a bigger impact on your academic success than extra hours spent studying.
Don’t get too excited though– you can’t just replace your study sessions with sleep and expect to earn straight A’s—you still have to study. But you may not realize just how much being well rested matters when it comes time to recall the information you covered while studying or listening to a lecture. Read on to learn why sleep is such an important part of learning new information and why you shouldn’t skimp on it if you want to do well in your courses.
How the Brain Forms Memories
While you may be reviewing your flashcards, doing readings, and studying your notes while awake, the real work of filing knowledge away in long term memory happens while you’re sound asleep.
During sleep, your brain isn’t contending with lots of new input coming in, leaving it free to take care of some mental housekeeping, including organizing and storing the information you’ve learned during the day. While you snooze away, your brain builds and expands connections between nerve cells, helping to convert new information into long-term memories.
Memories of how you do something, called procedural memories, are processed in the lighter, dream-filled REM phase of sleep. But memories that relate to knowing facts about things, called declarative memories, are largely processed in the deeper, slow wave sleep (SWS). Yet research suggests that memory consolidation is an incredibly complex process, and to really effectively remember and be able to recall what you’ve learned, you need to have a combination of both kinds of sleep.
How do you do that? Each sleep cycle, from REM to SWS, lasts about 90 minutes before repeating. To reap the biggest benefits of sleep, you’ll need to get through several of these cycles without interruption. This means going to bed at a reasonable hour, especially if you have to be up early for work or class.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep
Sleep deprivation doesn’t just hurt your academic performance by impeding your brain’s ability to consolidate memories, however. When you don’t get enough sleep, your focus, attention and vigilance will suffer, making it harder to perform nearly any kind of task. And that’s not even the extent of the negative effects of losing sleep.
Here’s what else happens when you don’t get enough sleep:
- You’ll be in a bad mood. Insufficient sleep can increase feelings of sadness and anger, research shows. It gets worse though: the more emotionally unsettled you are on a given day the worse your sleep will be that night, creating a vicious cycle of bad sleep and bad moods.
- Your reaction time will slow. Don’t expect to excel at making split second decisions if you’re overtired. Sleep deprivation slows your reaction time, making it hard to perform well on timed tests, and more dangerously, to do things like drive a car.
- You’ll feel more stressed. Stress can contribute to difficulties sleeping, but even if you’re not stressed before losing sleep, you likely will be after. Lack of sleep boosts stress hormones in your body, an effect that becomes worse the more sleep you miss out on.
- Any existing health conditions you have will be exacerbated. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, diabetes, or a variety of cardiovascular conditions, lack of sleep can actually make them worse.
- Your overall brain health will falter. Even one night of sleep deprivation can have an impact on your brain’s health and well-being. It’s suggested that loss of sleep, even in the short term, leads to losses of brain tissue, further affirming the criticality of sleep.
- You will have less brain activity. A tired brain is a lazy brain, at least that’s what research suggests. Brain scans used to monitor brains of sleep-deprived subjects performing verbal tasks found that the temporal lobe, critical to language processing, was not active. While the brain may be able to compensate when doing some kinds of tasks, performance was markedly lower in all sleep deprived subjects than those who were well-rested.
All of these negative effects are troubling when you don’t have anything going on, but are especially vexing when you’ve got a test coming up and you really need to remember information and be at your peak performance.
Why Sleep Matters for School: The Research
Thinking of staying up all night to study? You might want to rethink your plan. If it’s not clear by now, the research on the subject should help you to see just why sleep is your friend when you’re trying to study or remember any kind of information. These studies shed some light on how and why sleep is such a critical study tool.
One study found that an extra hour of sleep may actually be more important than an extra hour of studying. Researchers found that students who reviewed their notes thoroughly then went to sleep as soon as they begun to feel drowsy had better recall of the information, both in quantity and quality than those who pushed themselves to study for the additional time rather than sleeping.
Similar results were found in a Harvard study. In this study, 60 students were asked to memorize 20 pairs of random words. Half were tested on no sleep, half with a full night’s rest. Of those who slept, 76% were able to recall the words, while only 32% of the sleepless students could.
Research on mice also suggests that sleep has a significant impact on performance. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that mice who were allowed to sleep after a training session remembered what they learned far better than those who were deprived of sleep after the conditioned learning.
Lack of sleep doesn’t just make it hard to recall information, it can actually cause memory distortion. Subjects in a study were more likely to incorrectly identify aspects of a simulated burglary than those who were well-rested. Students should take note—those who got five or fewer hours of sleep were just as likely to make mistakes as those who got no sleep at all.
There’s a direct correlation between grades and sleep. A recent study found that students who suffered a chronic lack of sleep scored significantly lower on their final exam in the current academic year (an average of 0.8 lower) and had a significantly lower average grade than students who got enough sleep (an average of 0.5 lower). They also found it harder to concentrate while studying.
How to Sleep Smart
By now it should be clear that getting a good night’s rest is not only a smart thing to do, it can also help to make you smarter. Of course, it’s one thing to know what’s good for you and another to actually do it, especially if you’re busy and trying to balance your courses with caring for others, social activities, and/or working. Here are some tips and guidelines that will help you get better, more rejuvenating sleep.
Start by getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep. While individuals will vary, most young people will need at least 8 to 9 hours of sleep to be able to function properly, according to research from the National Sleep Foundation.
You should also avoid late in the day caffeine. While caffeine can give you a boost, it shouldn’t be how you primarily stay alert, especially in the evening. Caffeine can stay in your system anywhere form 6-8 hours, so you’ll want to ensure you only have it in the morning if you want to get a good night’s rest.
Where you sleep can also have a big impact on how well you sleep. Ideally, your room should be dark, quiet, and slightly cool. Don’t study or use your laptop or phone in bed before you plan to go to sleep, as this can make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep.
Finally, create a sleep schedule. Have a set bedtime and stick to it. That way, you can schedule your study time around your sleeping time, and ensure that, ideally, you have enough time in your day for both.
Where ever and when ever you decide to sleep, make sure you get enough to help your brain be as healthy and as ready to learn and remember information as you can. You’ll not only feel better, but your grades may just see a boost as well, making sleep one study tool you should never neglect.