There has been a substantial amount of research done on the connection between sleep and learning demonstrating that proper sleep habits can improve memory functioning. One recent study at UC Berkeley shows that memory functioning seems to be better for people who have had a nap between learning sessions when compared to people who have not had a nap. Some theorists believe that sleep prevents interference from taking place; however, others maintain that sleep actually helps to move newly acquire information from short-term memory into long-term storage (Martin, 1991). The verdict is still out on exactly why sleep is helpful, but it does seem to be important when it comes to learning.
Considering the results of the Berkeley study, some might argue that we should all take a nap after each study session, but it also depends somewhat on the person. Personally, long naps make me groggy and can be counter-productive if I have other work to do. Another possibility might be to study before going to bed, but again if you aren’t alert or able to concentrate late at night, this might not be the best strategy.
Instead, it might be just as useful to take breaks more regularly. Some people spend so much energy trying to cram information into their brains that they never stop to reflect on the information. If people spend a lot of time studying and then try to do other activities that are mentally taxing, there is a strong possibility of interference. Instead, maybe it is better to do something that isn’t going to compete for that valuable memory space even if that something doesn’t involve sleep. According to Nesca and Koulack (1994), it is believed that any type of linguistic activity (talking, reading, or listening) can cause interference. If this is true, then going for a walk after studying might be a good way to take a break, or it might be simply a matter of having some quiet time, so that some of the new ideas can sink in.
There has also been some research on the negative effects of sleep deprivation on brain functioning. One study at the UC San Diego Medical Centre concludes that sleep deprived subjects perform more poorly on arithmetic problems. The brain can do a lot of things when it is tired, but this suggests that it is not a good idea to study all night before a math exam. Writing a test requires a lot of mental processing skills (ex: reading, writing, problem solving, and creative thinking). All of these skills require an alert and well rested mind, so it makes sense that getting a good night sleep before an exam is important. Cramming might be necessary at times, but for the most part it just creates fatigue.
Consider an athlete who is training for an important competition. Does it help that athlete to stay up all night practicing or reviewing video footage of past performances? If the athlete isn’t ready to compete at that point, it is probably too late. In my mind, the same principles apply to the learning process. Prepare as much as possible beforehand by following a regular study routine, but try to get a good night sleep before the exam, so that when the exam starts, you are ready to perform.
Martin, D. G. (2001). Psychology: Principles and Applications. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Inc.
Nesca, M. & Koulack, D. (1994). Recognition memory, sleep and circadian rhythms. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 48(3), 1-15. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/cep/48/3/359/
-- Tim Podolsky