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Sleeping For Better Study Performance

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Thinking back to my student days (for the historians amongst us I completed my equivalent of the vce in 1988), I can vividly remember some lessons I learnt the hard way, some I intuitively stumbled through and some I learnt through the bad examples of others. For example, have you ever seen anyone race frantically into an exam two hours late because they slept in after being up cramming late the night before?. I have!

Since my days of formally being a student, I have become fascinated by sleep and its role in human performance. Coupled with my research into the anatomy and physiology of sleep I have come to the conclusion that sleep deprivation is one of the surest ways to reduce cognition (your ability to think), memory & recall as well as overall exam performance.

Professor robert stickgold of harvard medical school found that people who slept after learning and practicing a new task remembered more about it the next day than people who stayed up all night after learning the same thing. “it seems that memories normally wash out of the brain unless some process nails them down.” stickgold said.
To find out what areas of the brain are involved in alertness and cognitive function researchers at the division of neuropsychiatry scanned people using positron emission tomography (pet) after 24 hours of sleep deprivation. This study showed that short-term sleep deprivation produced global decreases in brain activity, with larger reductions in the thalamus, prefrontal and posterior parietal cortex. These areas of the brain are responsible for attention & higher-order cognitive processes (controls your ability to think & solve problems).

In fact, according to the school of psychology at the university of n.S.W after 17-19 hours without sleep (which equated to about midnight or 1am), performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that of a person with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol.
This is twice the legal adult limit allowable to be able to drive a car.

It appears that the type of sleep that you get also plays an important role in memory consolidation. Researchers at the national institute of psychiatry & neurology in hungary recorded the electrical activity of the brain during deep sleep and concluded that the slow wave function of the brain during deep sleep (non-rem) was integral to the function of the brain in visual memory and verbal learning performance.

The best deep sleep actually comes at the start of your sleep cycle (preferably between 9.30pm and 12.30pm).

So what can we do to ensure that we get the results that we want from the upcoming exams?

#1. Create a study plan.

We are completely blown away when students fail to complete an effective study plan. There is no surer way to lose valuable marks and increase your stress levels than to fail this vital planning stage.

When it comes to planning your study do not forget to include when you will be getting your sleep. For example, do not plan to learn any new work in the 2 hours before going to sleep.

Plan to use this time for revision or just relaxing to ensure that when you go to bed you get the best sleep possible. Aim to be asleep no later than 10 pm each night to get the best consolidation of memory and to wake maximally alert.

#2. Recognize the warning signs.

When it comes to sleep deprivation this can be difficult at times because one of the latest documented effects of sleep deprivation is the inability to realize just how tired you are. Studies have shown us that missing out on just a few hours sleep per night over the course of two weeks is equivalent to 2 full nights of total sleep deprivation according to a report in the march 15th 2003 issue of the journal sleep.

Previous research has shown that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity to name a few.

Here are some tell-tale signs you may be sleep deprived:

I. Relying on your alarm clock to wake you every day. Ii. Waking feeling un-refreshed. Iii. Short tempered, easily irritated. Iv. Excessive daytime sleepiness. V. Having to re-read the same work over and over again. Vi. Dark circles under your eyes. Vii. Poor levels of concentration.

#3. Understanding what sleep inertia is.

Sleep inertia is the name scientists have given to the time between waking up and maximal alertness and cognitive performance.

As reported in the journal of sleep research it takes on average 0.67 hours (40 mins) after waking for subjective alertness and 1.17 hours (70 mins) for cognitive performance to reach normal levels.How can you use this information to plan your study better?

#4. Power on with a power nap.

If you find that your concentration waning in the afternoon what can you do to increase your alertness and performance? Well according to research a 20 min power nap can significantly improve your fatigue, performance and concentration levels.

As reported in the may 1st 2001 journal sleep, researchers at flinders university in south australia measured alertness and performance levels in subjects following a night of just 4.7 hours sleep.

The subjects were split into 3 groups consisting of non-nappers, and those that were allowed to nap for 10 min & 30 min respectively.

Not surprisingly, the non-nappers reported a decrease in both subjective and objective measures of alertness & cognitive performance. Following the 10 minute nap there was an immediate improvement in subjective alertness and cognitive performance which was sustained for the complete hour of post nap testing.

Immediately, following the 30 minute nap, measures of alertness and performance declined but recovered by the end of the hour of post nap testing. This immediate decline is most likely the result of sleep inertia and measures of alertness and performance will increase after the sleep inertia subsides.

These results correlate well with other research which has shown that not only does a power nap (20 minutes sleep time) result in positive effects on alertness and performance but has no detrimental effect on night time sleepiness, circadian rhythm, or hormone balance.

Ensuring that you get a good night’s sleep is not only good for your health but it is good for your grades.

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