Sleeping dog

How Naps Can Help You Study

If you really want to improve your study skills, maybe you should take a nap.

It’s a lesser known study technique, but one that actually works.

When they have a lot of exams and assignments to complete, many students feel that they simply don’t have time to sleep.

But did you know that sleep is actually an important part of your study routine? Without sleep, your brain won’t be able to process and retain the information you learn, making your efforts wasted.

Why do we need sleep?

While we sleep, our brain uses this time to help the body recover, restore and repair itself. During the day we are bombarded with information and exposed to a range of environments, activities and situations. The brain absorbs all of this, but doesn’t have the time to effectively process it all. It uses your sleep time to enable it to do so.

Without adequate sleep no amount of study will help you to improve your results. No matter how hard you study, your brain needs sleep time in order to compartmentalise and store the information.

Adults are supposed to have 8 hours of sleep a night – and ideally teens should have more.

But by the time we fit in a day at school, sporting or cultural activities, a part-time job and schoolwork, the day usually expands into a fair chunk of the night too. If we want to do anything for entertainment, chat to friends, play games, check out social media or any other fun activities we often find that we are getting to bed quite late – and when our morning alarm goes off we are well short of 8 hours of sleep.

This gets the next day off to a bad start as we wake feeling lethargic and unmotivated. We might even feel quite ill as our head and stomach may feel nauseous and somewhat disconnected from our bodies. In this state we move and think at a slower pace, making the morning routine more difficult.

By the time we get to school we can barely think, let alone concentrate for a whole 7 hours and engage in effective learning.

The more tired we are the more inefficient we become. We forget things more easily, struggle to focus and to express our thoughts clearly. Our cognitive processes slow down, meaning that everything takes a little longer and a lot more effort.

We become physically clumsier, slowing our movements and increasing our risk of accidents. We also become less risk adverse when we are tired, which often results in us making silly or even dangerous decisions.

None of this is conducive to helping us study.

How does sleep help us study?

Apart from the fact that sleep deprivation makes us feel rotten,  we actually need sleep to help the brain store the information we learned during the day.

When we first learn things, the brain stores them in the hippocampus. But this part of the brain is only suitable for short term memories and needs to be cleared out at the end of each day to make way for new learning.

While we sleep, the brain sorts through the information, determines how important it is and therefore how readily accessible it needs to be. It links new information to old memories, consolidating and organising the information so that it can be filed in a logical way.

It’s a bit like shutting down a computer so that it can do a system clean up.

Without enough sleep, this process can’t take place. The information in the hippocampus won’t be moved to our long term memory. This means that we will lose it altogether and also struggle to absorb any new information.

Many students rely on late night cramming sessions to learn everything they need for the exam. But this is not an effective technique.

Apart from the fact that you will feel terrible and extremely drowsy during the exam, the brain will struggle to retain the information. It likes to learn in short bursts, then process the information before having to deal with more content. In a long study session this isn’t possible.

In fact, the brain can really only hold about an hour’s worth of information. That means that if you do an 8 hour session, your brain will retain what you learn in the first half hour and the last half hour and forget all the stuff in the middle. Imagine doing all that work and having 7 hours of study being a complete waste of time!

Rather than doing an all night study session, a good study technique adopted by many successful students is to work for a shorter amount of time and then have a short nap before starting their next study session. Research shows that this study strategy helps the brain retain more information. This is often referred to as a sleep sandwich, where you study for a bit, then sleep for a bit and then study some more.

The challenge here is to limit yourself to only 20 minutes of sleep!

(And, of course, the sleep only helps if you are consolidating information. To do that, you need to have done some study in the first place. You can’t just prepare for exams by sleeping your days away!)

How to get enough sleep

Sleep is a valuable study habit and needs to be given a far greater priority. A lot of students view sleep almost as an optional extra or an unnecessary use of their time. They resent having to stop doing their preferred activities and head to bed. But it’s important that we put the same amount of value and effort into our evening routine as we do into our morning one.

We need to develop a pattern of sleep hygiene. When we were babies, our parents would have had a routine to the process of feeding, bathing, dressing, book, bottle and bed. This routine helps babies to wind down and relax after a day of stimulation.

As adults, we would do well to re-introduce this routine.

You need to set yourself a strict deadline at which you need to stop working for the night. You might even need to set an alarm – just as you do to get up in the morning, Finish off what you are doing and move away from your desk.

Have a routine that signals to your brain that it is time to relax. Take a show, have a warm drink, read a book, chat to your parents… the choice is yours. But avoid screen time and social media. The light will re-stimulate your brain and you may have an emotional reaction to what you read which will make it hard to sleep.

Try to remove all worries from your mind. There are a number of techniques for this. You could have a notebook beside your bed into which you write any thoughts, things you need to do or remember. That way your brain knows they have been stored and can be dealt with after your sleep.

Some people like to write their worries on notes and place them in a box. The box can then literally be shut out of the room, allowing your brain to relax, free of any worries.

There are many relaxation tracks online that will help you drift off to sleep.

Experiment for a couple of weeks and find out what works best for you.

But whatever you do, don’t take sleep for granted. It is as important a part of your day as any other.

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