Studying for exams, preparing for interviews, memorizing speeches or work presentations – sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get all that information to stay in your head.
With so much to process, it’s often tempting to burn the candle at both ends, studying or working late into the night.
But this can lead to a vicious cycle: you can’t sleep because you’re stressed, and then you can’t learn effectively because you’re too tired.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case though. As you’ll see in this article, with a bit of preparation, good sleep and good learning can go hand in hand.
What happens when you sleep?
There are many different theories as to why you sleep, with it probably serving several different functions. Your brain is in fact very active when you sleep, and some sleep experts believe that you’re in fact still learning long after your head hits the pillow.
They think that this happens through what’s known as memory consolidation. This is the process by which the brain turns information that you pick up during the day into lasting memories.
And animal studies, such as that conducted by researchers in 2016, show that sleep deprivation adversely affects short and long-term memory.
So if sleep is so important for building memories, an interesting question is whether or not you can take advantage of that fact, and choose what to learn while you’re asleep.
Is sleep-learning really possible?
Sleep-learning refers to the supposed ability of your brain to learn new information from material heard during sleep.
Perhaps you’ve seen adverts for courses or audio books that you can listen to during your sleep to learn a new skill or language?
They sometimes claim that you can learn effortlessly whilst you sleep. While this might sound like the perfect solution to your revision worries, research has shown you can’t learn completely new information while asleep.
Way back in the 1950’s, some interesting research into sleep-learning showed subjects learnt nothing new once asleep. And in the 67 years since then, nobody has proven otherwise.
So although sleep may play a role in consolidating your memories, unfortunately you still have to do the groundwork of learning the information while you’re awake.
Is it better to study late or go to sleep?
Sometimes it’s necessary to work long hours to prepare for an exam or presentation, or to finish an important project. And many students force themselves to stay awake late into the night studying.
But is studying or working that late really in your best interest?
Profesor Cari Gillen-O’Neel and her colleagues from the University of California conducted research into what happens when students stay up late to study. And she found that sacrificing sleep can be counterproductive.
They found that students’ academic outcomes were strongly linked to the amount of sleep they had the previous night. Even if they stayed up late to study more, their lack of sleep had a negative impact on their test results; they would have done better studying less and getting more sleep.
These negative effects are made worse the more nights you work late. Pulling multiple late night study sessions in a row leads to poorer and poorer results.
The researchers didn’t find any evidence of individual characteristics playing a role in the effects of sleep on study. This means that even if you feel you can work effectively with little sleep, your performance is still likely to be lower than it would be if you were well rested.
Professor Gillen-O’Neel is keen to stress that her findings shouldn’t be interpreted as saying study isn’t important. It certainly is, but so is sleep.
Tiredness and poor performance
Dr Giuseppe Curcio and his colleagues from the University of Rome looked at the effects of bad sleep on learning. They examined how young people, from school children to university students, performed at academic tasks the morning after a bad night’s sleep.
Unsurprisingly, those who had slept poorly felt tired throughout the day, affecting their mood and their sociability. And tired students also struggled to learn and retain new information.
Dr Curcio observed that ‘higher cognitive functions’ were most affected. So poor sleep led to worse attention, a lessened ability to solve problems and reduced academic performance.
Tiredness lowers your ability to engage with complex tasks, assess mental data and take important decisions. And these are some of the core skills you need during an exam or high pressure work assignment.
And in a previous article, I looked at research into the effect of changing school start times. Teenagers naturally tend to feel sleepy later, and wake up later as well. So very early school start times can result in less sleep.
Research has shown that changing the whole school timetable so teenagers start later improves learning and performance.
What can you do if you sleep badly?
So what should you do if you have a bad night’s sleep? Japanese researchers have suggested that a half hour nap can counteract the negative effects of having just 4 or 5 hours sleep. And the effects were most visible after participants took short naps over 4 consecutive days.
Other researchers have also shown that napping during the day can improve your productivity, mood and alertness.
So if you’re revising while sleep deprived, adding naps to your schedule during the bad days might help to mitigate some of the damage, and hopefully keep your brain working at its best.
The studies considered here show that sleep is a vital part of studying, learning and professional preparation. Giving up sleep for a few more hours’ work is counterproductive. You’re likely to be less effective the next day, and perform worse than you would have done had you studied less and got a good night’s sleep.
I’ve already discussed the benefits of napping, but what other techniques could you use to help you sleep when work or revision is piling up?
The answer is likely to depend on how you study. Preparation, routine and a healthy diet while you’re working will help you make the most of the daytime hours.
Most importantly, understanding the effect that sleep has on your performance (and the fact that less sleep leads to worse grades) means that sleep itself should be seen as an important revision technique.
Working smarter, rather than longer, could be the key to success.