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Want To Ace That Exam? The Science Of Sleep – How Does It Make You A Better Learner?

Are you guilty of staying up late cramming before an exam? The National Sleep Foundation Poll shows that most students are not getting adequate sleep, which affects their grades. The reasons for these changes are attributed to pulling an all-nighter, increased part-time working hours, and watching TV at bedtime.  However, the best way to maximize your performance in learning is to get the required number of hours rest to enable you to learn.


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The Scientific Relationship between Sleep and Good Grades

The National Institute of Health revealed that sleep-deprived students have a lower GPA, which has been shown to impact concentration and memory.  Remember a time when you found yourself staring at a book till the wee hours of the morning, only to end up with a memory fail on the test day? This is because you are exhausted, and you cannot think clearly.

A study carried out at Stanford also discovered that sleep deprivation leads to decreased leptin and higher ghrelin levels. Lack of sleep results in less fullness and more hunger, leading to consumption of high-calorie foods. The research also found that learners were able to recall and consolidate information more effectively after getting enough sleep.

The Psychological Science issue carried out a random study to figure out the importance of sleep in learning. Three groups had to study a list of 16 Swahili words and give their translation. The participants saw the words paired with their meaning and had to go through the list and type the meaning. The control group studied the words and came back 12 hours later after sleep. They were tested on these words the next morning and again a week, and six months later.

The sleep group went through the words in the evening, went to sleep and came back after 12 hours. In a second trial, they continued to study the words they got wrong. They came after six months for tests of the words.

A third group, the No Sleep group studied the words in the morning and came back after 12 hours without any sleep. The group studied words a second time and were tested a week later and six months after. The findings showed that the control group and the sleep group remembered words after 12 hours compared to the no sleep group.

Also, the sleep group relearned the words in the second study session quicker unlike the no sleep group. At these tests, the sleep group excelled, showing that sleep led people to recall words better than studying only once and sleeping or studying twice without sleep.


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Getting sleep is essential when it comes to mental stamina. To maximize how long you learn or how well you learn, you need to get the recommended hours rest. You consolidate memories during sleep, which helps sustain attention and focus. Furthermore, sleep gives you the energy to be active and promotes your well-being.  Being tired makes you a passive learner, meaning that you only learn less.

The above research by the Psychological Issue also shows that cramming might not be a good study tactic as most students believe. It’s critical to spread work out over a longer period. Cramming means that you might remember the information after the exam. However, material that is studied over several nights is likely to stick even after an exam. Cramming and the reduced amount of sleep only exacerbates the problem.

Enough sleep also promotes your immune system. Lack of sleep suppresses your ability to fight off colds and other infections. If it’s recurrent, this can lead to other problems like obesity and heart disease.  Being sick means that you won’t be well enough to study or go to school, further lagging behind.

Sleep deprivation and low-quality sleep also affect your mood, which could have a consequence for learning. Changes in mood jeopardizes your ability to learn new information or to remember it. Also, you might view assignments as a challenge and not as an opportunity to show what you have learned. Adequate sleep creates a positive mindset, which is what you need to prepare for your exams.

What Happens During Rapid Eye Movement Sleep?

Sleep goes through five phases in which the body and brain cycle through different times during the night. The four phases involve a switch from shallow to deep phase. The fifth phase is the rapid eye movement sleep that takes your brain through vivid dreams and increased brain activity.

The last sleep stage is short during the start of the night. Long periods of rapid eye movement happen in the final hours of sleep, which can get interfered with if you don’t get eight hours of sleep. A review by the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine notes that there’s more activity in the emotional, motor, visual, and autobiographical memory areas of the brain.

Nonetheless, other areas of the brain like the part involved in rational thought go through decreased activity. It’s important to note that the dreams you remember when you wake up are a part of REM sleep, but the brain is active throughout the sleep cycle.


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Researchers at Rutgers University suggest that the quality of someone’s sleep before a traumatic situation can impact how the brain reacts to a scary circumstance. The more rapid eye movement you get, the weak the fear-related response and effect.

The part of the brain responsible for secreting norepinephrine during non-REM sleep and when you’re awake takes a break. Norepinephrine is sensitive to stimuli and affects the fear center of the brain. That could be the reason why lack of enough sleep leaves you stressed to face an exam.

The psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that REM sleep can help regulate flow, clear Alzheimer’s-related plaque from the brain, and regulate blood glucose levels.

Should you Study Late or Go to Sleep?

While sometimes you may need to work for long hours to prepare for a presentation or an exam, research reveals that sacrificing sleep could be counterproductive.  The researchers discovered that staying up late didn’t guarantee results and lack of sleep impacted test results.  The non-sleepers would have done better getting more sleep and studying less.  Also, they noted that having several all-nighters lead to poor results.

It’s worth noting that the researchers did not find evidence of personal characteristics impacting the effect of sleep on studying. You might feel you can work well with little sleep, but this is likely to affect your performance than when you’ve had enough rest.

Getting a Good Night Sleep

Becoming sleep-deprived when you’re trying to learn something is counter-productive.  Here are some excellent tips on how to practice sleep hygiene which will lead to improved grades.

Skip the Caffeine

While a good cup of coffee might help you stay awake to study more, it only does more harm than good. Caffeine increases your adrenaline levels, which disrupts your focus and adds more stress.

Do away with coffee the night before the exam day. You can take a small cup on the exam day to keep your productivity high.  Water is an excellent alternative to stay awake and has no side effects. Also, small amounts of caffeine can be found in chocolate which could affect your sleep.


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Eat Right

What you eat not only has an impact on your weight, it also affects your ability to focus. A drastic change in your diet before an exam could interfere with your concentration. Focus on eating a healthy diet, but keep it within the parameters of your regular diet.  Brain foods promote brain function and help you stay alert to go through any test without distractions.

Do not skip breakfast. A healthy breakfast should contain fruits and vegetables for brain power, protein for alertness, and whole grain carbs for sustained mental energy. Smoothies and milkshakes are excellent if you’re in a rush.  Moreover, avoid eating big or heavy meals too late as they could overload your digestive system.  A full tummy affects how well you sleep. Opt for a light meal that is easily digestible.  Set aside an hour after you’re done eating as sleep time.

Avoid Intense Workouts

Workouts that leave you with heavy physical stain, sore, or tired divert your focus and make it hard to sleep.  Although exercise is excellent for memory improvement, intense workouts can do more harm than good.

If you have to work out, finish the exercise three hours before you go to bed. A brisk walk in the days leading to your exam would be great as it reduces anxiety and stress. What’s more, it leads to improved sleep quality.  Yoga is also a fantastic choice as it keeps your body in a good state on your exam day.

Limit Your Distractions

Distractions are a common hindrance to quality sleep.  The blue light from your digital clock, tablet, or from a cell phone may interfere with your sleep.  Turn them off before you get to bed.  If you have a habit of looking at your clock several times a night, turn it away from view, under your bed, or in a drawer.

Avoid sitting on your bed watching TV or surfing the internet. Lower the lights as this signal your brain to produce melatonin, a hormone that triggers sleep.  Check for hush noise like nearby traffic or a faucet drip as this could affect your sleep.  A white noise app, air conditioner, or a fan can help hush the noise. Ear plugs are also ideal for blocking distracting noise.


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Schedule Your Sleep Time

If you’re used to sleeping at any hour, this can confuse your body and leave you more stressed and tired in the morning. Significant variations in sleep schedules could have similar effects as getting less sleep. Instead, set your body clock where you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.

Your brain will be used to a healthy sleep schedule.  You can come up with a bedtime relaxing routine that will help you differentiate sleep time from your normal activities that may trigger stress.  Activities like taking a hot bath, listening to slow music or reading a book could help you adjust and sleep better.

Watch What You Drink or Smoke

Although alcohol can leave you with a hangover and sleepy, it’s after-effects are undesirable. You’ll wake up more often after the initial effects wear off.  A glass of wine might sound relaxing before you go to bed, but could have a negative effect.

You can opt for chamomile tea and warm milk. They are relaxing and do not have after-effects. Remember you don’t want to have needless nighttime trips to the bathroom. Avoid taking anything two hours before bed as frequent trips could make it hard to fall asleep quickly.

Nicotine can make it difficult to sleep as it’s a stimulant.  Withdrawal symptoms can lead to poor sleep and may make your mornings a nightmare. Avoid smoking within two hours of bedtime.

Practice Time Management

Worrying about how you’re going to perform in exams can keep you from falling asleep. You can decrease your worry and stress by staying on top of your schoolwork. Study before the exam week to reduce last-minute cramming. Journaling is a great stress-reduction technique that you can use before going to bed.

Sneak in a Nap

In real life, there are times you won’t get enough sleep because you’re out late with friends, stressing over exams, or pulling an all-nighter to meet a critical deadline. Fortunately, naps can increase alertness and boost your concentration. While naps won’t replace sleep, they are a quick mood boost compared to caffeine or energy drinks.

Catching Z’s is Crucial

The research conducted shows how sleep is a critical aspect of studying and learning.  Foregoing sleep to cram is counterproductive and affects productivity. Nevertheless, getting a good night sleep could positively affect your grades as you’ll be more energized and motivated to concentrate.

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