Study Before Bed For Better Retention

It's not news that sleep is tied to learning -- even a 90-minute nap can significantly help boost your brain power. If you want to cement new knowledge in your brain, recent sleep research demonstrates that a good night's sleep following your studies has a significant impact on your ability to retain information.

Photo remixed from Muhammad Rehan.

The study in question asked participants to memorise related word pairs (such as circus — clown) and unrelated word pairs (such as cactus — brick). Some participants learned the words at 9am, some at 9pm. The 9pm crowd went to sleep shortly after learning the words. The 9am crowd did not.

The results: Sleep made no difference when participants were asked to recall the related words, but when participants were asked to recall unrelated word pairs, the 9pm group -- the group that slept right after learning -- did significantly better. So where your brain already has a strong semantic roadmap for learning (as is the case with the related word pairs), sleep doesn't have a major effect. Where it's forming new connections, sleep makes all the difference.

Stick that in your mind pipe next time you need to do some serious cramming.

Memory for Semantically Related and Unrelated Declarative Information: The Benefit of Sleep, the Cost of Wake [PLoS ONE via Scientific American]


    In my many years of experience as a student, if I had a choice between putting in an hour of study right before the exam, putting it in right before going to sleep the night before, or splitting it 45/15 so that most study was done before bed, and a small amount of revision was done the morning of the exam.... the 45/15 plan gave the best results.

    After realizing this, I would be dead tired and ready to go to sleep after lots of other studying, but I would still pick up the book and force myself to at least give the material a surface once-over before calling it a night, because of the directly observable difference in my marks. Even if I was sleep deprived and declared to myself, "This is familiarisation only, not memorisation," getting a look at the material before sleeping really DID seem to result in better retention. The short study period after waking up seemed to test and better cement the links among the pieces of information, vs. no study on exam day at all.

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