By Amber Zander and Melissa Gannon
It’s not uncommon for college students to pull all-nighters the night before a big exam. They either forgot about the exam and have no choice but to stay up all night and study or are so nervous that they’d rather study than sleep. Students try to stay up into the late hours of the night, attempting to remember every detail on their study guides, flipping through their flashcards over and over again. Before they realize it, its 8 am, and they decide to call it quits and grab the closest source of caffeine just to have some energy to make it through the exam. Throughout the exam, they find themselves struggling to remember the information they spent all night studying. They’re fatigued and although they try their best to remember, the information just isn’t coming to them. Weeks later students receive their results from the exam, only to find that their grade didn’t match the amount of effort put into studying for it.
It may seem as though pulling all-nighters is what most college students see as the easiest and best way to study, this is far from the truth. Multiple studies have been centered on the importance of sleep, and how crucial of a part it is to studying and consolidation. Consolidation is the process by which new memories are transformed into more permanent and stable memories (1, 2). In order to understand how sleep effects memory, there needs to be a small understanding on how memory works. According to McClelland, memory starts by being encoded in the hippocampus (fast learning), after it will gradually move to the neocortex for long term storage (pictured) (3). However, these “memories” that are stored in the hippocampus were quick and efficiently coded, but that causes them to be unstable and vulnerable to retroactive interference. Sara E. Alger explains why sleep helps reduce retroactive interference in her study, stating, “it was simply the time spent “off-line”, without the ability for outside interference to disrupt the memory trace, which allowed better retention” (4). In short, sleep reduces the amount of forgetting that can occur.
Psychology Today reported that during sleep, there are two process that improve consolidation of memories. The first is that sleep helps protect new memories from disruption by the “interfering experiences that are inevitable during wakefulness” (5). The second is that sleep consolidates these new memories in order of relative importance and the person’s “expectations for remembering,” (5). A study performed by the University of Lubeck in Germany researched the effects of sleeping after learning new information. 193 participants partook in a 2 (before bed vs earlier in day) x 2 (told of test vs not told of test). They were asked to recall memory tasks, with some of the volunteers being exposed to the material early in the day, and others exposed to the material later in the day before they go to bed. When participants were asked to recall the material, those that had learned the information before they want to bed were able to recall more than those who had been exposed earlier in the day (5). Researchers also examined the effects of the participants being told they would have to recall the material the next day. The group that had been told about the test, spent more time in the deepest stage of sleep, REM sleep, than those who weren’t told about the test. This shows that memory consolidation is done in REM sleep. However, participants didn’t have to reach full REM sleep in order to improve memory, even the smallest amount of sleep helps in memory consolidation (6). This same research group did a similar study, but instead of getting a full night of sleep, some participants took a short nap after learning the material and others stayed awake. Results showed the group that took the short nap remembered 25% more than those who stayed awake (5). In summary, sleep helps remember material, even if it isn’t a full night’s rest, a simple 20-minute power nap will help you in the long run (6).
As an incoming college student, there are many ways that you can avoid the infamous “all-nighter.” The best way for those who like to push things off until it can’t wait anymore is to start studying for an exam at least a week before hand. This is a better alternative to cramming information last minute. By starting a week in advance, you can spread the information out, giving your brain time to move the information from short-term memory to long-term memory without interference from other experiences. *BONUS* You’ll actually be learning the material rather than just memorizing it. Lastly, the most important and obvious way to better consolidate your information is by getting at least 7 hours of sleep the night before an exam. This, again, gives your brain time to consolidate the information without having other stimuli interfere with encoding from the hippocampus to the neocortex. Not only will you be able to recall information better for your exam but you will also be well rested!
(1) Sleep, Learning, and Memory. (2007, December 18). Retrieved April 29, 2017, from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory
(2) Mundy, M., Goldstein, E. B., Brockmole, J. R., & Goldstein, E. B. (2017). (4th ed.). South Melbourne: Cengage Learning.
(3) McClelland, James L. McNaughton, Bruce L. & O’Reilly, Randall C. (1995). Why there are complementary learning systems in the hippocampus and neocortex: Insights from the successes and failures of connectionist models of learning and memory. Psychological Review, 102(3), 419-457.
(4) Alger, Sara E. Lau, Huiyan. & Fishbein, William. (2012). Slow wave sleep during a daytime nap is necessary for protection from subsequent interference and long-term retention. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 98(2), 188-196.
(5) Klemm, William R. How Sleep Helps Memory. (2011, March 11). Retrieved April 25, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201103/how-sleep-helps-memory.
(6) Gais, Steffen. Lucas, Brian. & Born, Jan. (2006). Sleep after learning aids memory recall. Learning Memory, 13, 259-262.