Want to do better in your exams? Go to sleep!

Posted 7 Jan 2020
By Dr Dominique Thompson

Everyone knows sleep is good for you, right? Boring advice, even if it is true! But what if sleep was more than just sensible (like eating healthily and staying hydrated)? What if sleep was ‘active’, powerful even, and helped you to do better in your exams or studies?

Sleep is a super-power!

Well the amazing news is that it can do exactly that- sleep is not in fact a ‘passive’ activity, when you are just zonked out for a few hours, till you get up and do something ‘active’ again. It is when you actually ‘revise’ all your new learning from the previous day (according to Dr Kirstie Anderson, a sleep doctor in Newcastle).

When we humans fall asleep, amazing things happen which mean that our memories are laid down and consolidated (making room for new ones the next day), our brains analyse and assess what we have observed, taken in and read that day, and sleep can even lead to sudden ‘sit up/ inspiration’ moments in the night, or early hours of the morning, as things click into place! The Periodic Table, DNA and Google were all apparently visualised for the first time after dream sleep!

Here comes the science!

To get technical for a moment, (and with thanks to the fantastic book ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker) experiments have shown that sleep improves memory retention by between 20-40%!

So- Learning stuff, then ‘sleeping on it’ and coming back to it the next day is much more effective than learning stuff then trying to remember it later that day…Imagine the impact that could have on your academic performance!

Forget using ‘study drugs’ (which are potentially dangerous, expensive and have never been shown to improve performance)- just get 8-9 hours of sleep regularly (every night), with lights off at about midnight at the latest. And for fact-based, text book revision and learning, the advice is even clearer- get to bed and sleep a bit earlier and benefit from what is known as ‘deep NREM early phase sleep’…and all for FREE!

Never work through the night

So rather than doing what so many students do, and working all night to try to learn more (you won’t and it will actually make your performance the next day worse), get your sleep (at night not in the daytime), and to really ensure you protect all your hard work and learning, don’t drink any alcohol till the revision AND exams are over. Alcohol unfortunately has a terrible retrograde impact on learning and memory- even 3 days after the revision took place- so avoid it if you possibly can.

Follow the ‘Rules’

The basic sleep rules are worth following as much as you can all year round, but particularly when the academic pressure is on!

  • Got to bed and get up at the same time every day
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evenings after 4pm
  • Avoid heavy exercise in the 3 hours before bedtime- but do exercise earlier in the daytime
  • Don’t nap in the daytime after 3pm
  • Relax for an hour before sleep- stop work/ shut your books and chill out, chatting with friends, having a bath/ shower, listen to music or watch a funny programme.
  •  If you’re struggling to sleep, or feeling anxious at night, and it’s going on for more than a few days, talk to someone like a counsellor or GP to get some advice, especially if you have followed all the advice for a week or two, and still can’t sleep.

So there you have it! A free, and relatively simple, way to optimise your learning and revision, with proven benefit on academic results! Simples!

For more advice or support check out Dominique’s Student Wellbeing Series of books!

Posted 7 Jan 2020
By Dr Dominique Thompson