Learning Best When You Rest

Students staying awake all night to study is common practice. Around 20 percent of students pull all-nighters at least once a month. About 35 percent stay up past three in the morning once or more weekly.

So, why is it that sleep is so important for test scores? While the answer seems simple, that students simply perform better when they’re not mentally or physically tired, the truth may be far more complicated and interesting.

In the last 20 years, scientists have found that sleep impacts more than just students’ ability to perform well; it improves their ability to learn, memorize, retain, recall, and use their new knowledge to solve problems creatively. All of which contribute to better test scores.

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How does sleep improve the ability to learn?

When learning facts and information, most of what we learn is temporarily stored in a region of the brain called the hippocampus. Some scientists hypothesize that, like most storage centers, the hippocampus has limited storage capacity. This means if the hippocampus is full, and we try to learn more information, we won’t be able to.

Fortunately, many scientists also hypothesize that sleep, particularly Stages 2 and 3 sleep, plays a role in replenishing our ability to learn. In one study, a group of 44 participants underwent two rigorous sessions of learning, once at noon and again at 6:00 PM. Half of the group was allowed to nap between sessions, while the other half took part in standard activities. The researchers found that the group that napped between learning sessions learned just as easily at 6:00 PM as they did at noon. The group that didn’t nap, however, experienced a significant decrease in learning ability.

How does sleep improve the ability to recall information?

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Humans have known about the benefits of sleep for memory recall for thousands of years. In fact, the first record of this revelation is from the first century AD. Rhetorician Quintilian stated, “It is a curious fact, of which the reason is not obvious, that the interval of a single night will greatly increase the strength of the memory.”

In the last century, scientists have tested this theory many times, often finding that sleep improves memory retention and recall by between 20 and 40 percent. Recent research has led scientists to hypothesize that Stage 3 (deep non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep, or Slow Wave Sleep) may be especially important for the improvement of memory retention and recall.


How does sleep improve long-term memory?

Scientists hypothesize that sleep also plays a major role in forming long-term memories. MRI scans indicate that the slow brain waves of stage 3 sleep (deep NREM sleep) “serve as a courier service,” transporting memories from the hippocampus to other more permanent storage sites.

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How does sleep improve the ability to solve problems creatively?

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Many tests are designed to assess critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Recent research has led scientists to hypothesize that sleep, particularly REM sleep, plays a role in strengthening these skills. In one study, scientists tested the effect of REM sleep on the ability to solve anagram puzzles (word scrambles like “EOUSM” for “MOUSE”), an ability that requires strong creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

In the study, participants solved a couple of anagram puzzles before going to sleep in a sleep laboratory with electrodes placed on their heads. The subjects were woken up four times during the night to solve anagram puzzles, twice during NREM sleep and twice during REM sleep.

The researchers found that when participants were woken up during REM sleep, they could solve 15 to 35 percent more puzzles than they could when woken up from NREM sleep. They also performed 15 to 35 percent better than they did in the middle of the day. It seems that REM sleep may play a major role in improving the ability to solve complex problems.

So, what’s the point?

Sleep research from the last 20 years indicates that sleep does more than simply give students the energy they need to study and perform well on tests. Sleep actually helps students learn, memorize, retain, recall, and use their new knowledge to come up with creative and innovative solutions.

It’s no surprise that there is no improvement in scores for those who only prioritized their sleep the night before a big test. In fact, if students want to see an improvement in their test scores, they have to prioritize their sleep during the entire learning process. Staying up late to study just doesn’t pay off.

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