If I told you that the best thing you could do for your upcoming exams was to take a nap – you probably wouldn’t believe me, right?
You’ve heard it all before: the Cornell method, active recall, spaced repetition.
But sleep may be one of the most important things you need to add into your study schedule.
I can see you rolling your eyes – but seriously, you want to read this.
Anyone can tell you that you are likely to perform better if you are awake, alert and feeling great after a good night’s sleep.
But that’s not all.
Sleeping may actually be the difference between you remembering an answer or being lost for words on exam day.
Read more to learn why sleep is the best study technique.
How Sleep Improves Learning
Studies have shown that sleeping after periods of learning improves later test performance later on.
One of the earliest studies in this area, run in 1924, taught people a list of nonsense words (words that look and sound like English words but aren’t actually).
People were better at remembering the nonsense words when tested after sleeping, compared to those that stayed awake for the same length of time.
Even with just one hour of sleep, people could recall 7 nonsense words compared to 4.5 if they spent the same time awake.
This effect is increased as the time of sleep lengthens.
With an eight hour sleep opportunity after initial learning, an average of 5.6 words were correctly remembered.
However, if staying awake for eight hours after learning, it was rare that even one was recalled correctly.
That’s a big difference!
These first results have been replicated again and again in sleep research.
This study taught native English speakers a list of 24 German words and found that those who slept immediately after learning could remember more words 48 hours later when compared to those who were sleep-deprived.
Sleep has also been shown to speed up the processes of learning new motor actions (such as a sequence of keyboard presses) by up to 20%.
Just by sleeping!
While the effect is stronger with longer periods of sleep – even an ultra-short nap (of 6 minutes!) has been shown to improve the ability to remember newly learned words.
How Sleep Improves Exam Performance
Not surprisingly, this effect can be extended across daily sleep patterns.
During an exam period, students challenged to sleep 8 hours every single night significantly outperformed those who slept on average 6.9 hours per night.
Sleeping 8 hours per night gave students an up to 7.6 point improvement in exam scores.
In a group of physics students, those who slept 7 – 9 hours before their exam averaged a total exam mark of 68%, whereas those who slept under 3 hours scored only 50%.
Just by sleeping more, you can improve your performance on your next upcoming exam.
So, how does sleep improve memory?
Initially, sleep was thought to improve learning through decreasing the amount of interfering information after the learning period.
Makes sense, right?
Less interference means the brain can better remember what you’ve learnt.
However, this isn’t what it actually happening.
Recent research has shown that sleep plays a very large role in organising and cementing memories.
The process of making memories ‘stick’ in our brains, is known as consolidation.
By measuring people’s brain activity while asleep (something that is definitely a little uncomfortable!) scientists have shown that our brains ‘replay’ memories during the night.
This process of replaying memories involves re-activating neural networks (or connections between the cells in your brain).
During the night, re-activation of these neural networks promotes strengthening of their connections.
Common or overlapping networks are strengthened most, and weaker connections are let go.
This results in a streamlining of your memories and mental content, helping to move your newly formed memories/knowledge from short-term to long-term storage.
You can see how sleep is the best study technique – consolidating your knowledge and making your exam material stick!
The random network activation during sleep has also been linked to the bizarre and random dreams we experience (and don’t tell me you don’t have crazy dreams)!
Take the advice from science: sleep is the best study technique!
Next time you start to feel tired during your exam study session, don’t feel bad about taking a short nap.
During the days leading up to your exam, you might think that losing an hour of sleep to fit in an extra hour of study will help you get a better test score.
You are wrong.
Cut yourself some slack – and set your priorities straight!
Making sleep an important part of your study routine will ensure you get those extra exam marks you deserve, without burning yourself out.
The best part is – sleeping is much less effort than studying!
Pack up your study session, and let your brain do the work by itself.
While you now know that sleep may just be the best study technique, find other university and study tips here!