Sleeping (more) can improve exam results
May 30, 2019
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg

It is that time of year where many students are preparing for mid-year exams, with all teaching and classroom preparation done. At this stage, there is seemingly very little that teachers and parents can do other than to provide support and encouragement while they study and prepare. Ideally, students have finalised their summaries, flashcards, mindmaps and other mastery tools and have, in fact, already spent time using them in preparation for one final push in the day(s) before writing their exams. Sadly, this will not be the case for – perhaps – the majority of students, who will rely on cramming to get through the exams.
Although the two groups of students could hardly be more different in their preparation and approach to the exam, they probably will have one thing in common – a lack of proper sleep during the exam period. Even though this is common practice and will probably resonate with many parents, lack of sleep (sleep deprivation) is probably the worst possible “strategy” that students can employ during an exam.

Sleep, wellbeing and learning

In an era where it is all about doing things faster and more efficiently, sleep may seem a bit of a nuisance, because it implies taking time out of busy schedules to rest and “do nothing”. A lot of people baulk at the idea of “sleeping away” a third of their lives. However, we now know from research – especially over the last 15 -20 years – that sleep is an absolute necessity for our physical and mental wellbeing. This includes our immune system, metabolism, cognitive and emotional wellbeing as well as our learning.

We need to make parents and especially students aware of the importance of sleep for learning and to understand that sleep should form an integral part of their study routine. They need to know that without proper and enough sleep it is impossible for them to perform optimally. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation has a significant negative impact on their academic performance. It severely impacts both their ability to learn the next day, as well as the consolidation of learning and memory forming for the material they studied prior to (eventually) going to bed. Let’s look at these two facts and how they relate to the functioning of our hippocampus in a bit more detail:

  • Lack of sleep inhibits our ability to absorb and learn new information. This is more than just a result of us feeling tired after a bad night’s sleep. We know from research that our hippocampus plays a significant part in the process of absorbing and learning new information. When we do not sleep enough, research has shown that this “information processing ability” of the hippocampus is impacted negatively the following day.
  • In addition to the previous point, a lack of sleep significantly inhibits our ability to consolidate and remember what we have learnt prior to going to bed. One of the amazing findings from neuroscience is that memorisation does not end when we stop learning, but that the process of memory consolidation continues while we sleep – provided that we sleep enough, therefore allowing our brain to go through the various sleep cycles that are characteristic of a “good night’s” rest. Again, this has to do with the role of the hippocampus, both for memory consolidation and also in terms of encoding new learning. So if students do not sleep enough, it will significantly impair their ability to form long term memories or encode newly studied information. The 2015 article by Field and Diekelmann: Sleep smart—optimizing sleep for declarative learning and memory provides great graphics explaining these processes.

More sleep, better results

Enough sleep is crucial both for absorbing new information as well as for memory consolidation, therefore, caregivers have an important role to play – especially during exam time. Just telling students about the research may not be enough. Parents will have to ensure that just as they help school students with planning and managing their study workload, they will need to “enforce” a proper sleep schedule. Not only will this enable better short term results and handling of stress, but a more sustainable lifestyle by the time they leave school.

Another great article to read on the benefits of sleep, aimed at children by Dara S. Manoach and Robert Stickgold.


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