Sleep is very important in maintaining a healthy and productive life. As a student, it is particularly helpful when you are studying or writing an exam. This is because sleep is an important factor in consolidating cognitive performance.
How Sleep Impacts Memory
Learning and memory are two important mental processes that students rely on when studying. These processes are divided into three functions: acquisition, consolidation and recall.
Acquisition is the process of gaining or introducing new information into the brain. This is typically what you are doing when studying new lecture or course material. Consolidation is the process where newly gained information becomes stable and engrained into long-term memory. Recall is the ability to retrieve past information that has been stored within the brain. This is what is done when trying to remember previously learned information during an exam.
All these processes are impacted by sleep.
Memory acquisition and recall occur during wakefulness. Therefore, you must be able to understand, think and concentrate about the information you are studying for it to be acquired and remembered during a midterm or exam. This function is obstructed with inadequate sleep as its symptoms of tiredness and inability to concentrate hinder you from learning and remembering information. On the other hand, consolidation occurs during sleep. At this time, the newly acquired information begins to be engrained in the brain by the strengthening of neural connections that create our memories. This would then allow for greater recall once re-accessing this information.
Many studies have shown that inadequate and inconsistent sleep worsens cognitive performance including learning and memory. The increased fatigue and sleepiness and decreased concentration experienced with insufficient sleep impacts how well an individual would be able to study. As a result, less information is acquired, consolidated and able to be recalled during an exam. Therefore, it is important to prioritize sleep as a student to maximize the effects of studying.
How to Prioritize Sleep
There are many ways in which you can prioritize your sleep. By doing so, it will give your brain sufficient time to increase and strengthen the neurological connection needed for memory recall.
- Set a regular sleep schedule. By doing this continuously, it will reset your circadian rhythm causing it to align with your set sleep schedule. As your circadian rhythm adjusts to your new sleep schedule, it will be easier to fall asleep and wake up at the times you set for yourself.
- Be consistent. Sleep inconsistency is an irregular bed and wakeup time that changes in time and duration every day. Students tend to do this by getting insufficient sleep during the weekdays and “catching up” by oversleeping on weekends. This has been shown to be ineffective and decreases academic performance in students. Therefore, stick with your set sleep schedule.
- Decrease caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant and therefore makes it harder to fall asleep, causing you to stay up later. It is recommended to drink caffeinated drinks prior to 2 pm to avoid sleep disturbances.
- Avoid screen time at night. The blue light emitted from electronic devices has been shown to disrupt sleep schedules. It does so by suppressing the release of melatonin, a hormone required to make you drowsy to help you fall asleep. Therefore, try decreasing the brightness and increasing warmer tones on your electronic devices.
- Reduce stress. Stress has been shown to disrupt the quality of sleep. Increased worry not only makes it harder to fall asleep, but it causes individuals to wake up multiple times throughout the night. To avoid this, use stress-relieving coping strategies. This includes journaling, meditating before bed, doing bedtime yoga, taking a warm bath or shower and/or exercising during the day. Heightened stress can lead to insomnia. Therefore, if you have trouble dealing with stress, seek support through friends or family or support services at Carleton’s Health and Counselling Services.
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