Why Sleep Is Important for Learning
Have you noticed students missing from your courses, or seeming more anxious or exhausted when they do attend? Both graduate and undergraduate students have mentioned recently that this is a very busy time of the semester. They have midterm exams and projects, and competing demands for their time and attention. Though we don’t intend to all assign high-stakes work at the same time, our courses often follow the same academic tides, and many of us have major assignments due around midterm.
When we get busy, students and faculty alike tend to deprioritize taking good care of ourselves. We may not make time for exercise, for eating well, or for getting adequate sleep. But we can’t perform to our full potential unless we tend to these basic needs. Students can’t learn as much or as deeply; they can’t think or solve problems as creatively; they can’t analyze as incisively when they’re sleep deprived. With the weather so stunning, we often suggest that students get moving, but this semester we’d like to focus on rest, and sleep in particular.
When we think about being productive, or about being effective, we probably imagine a person who is actively working rather than resting. But rest is an essential part of working well. Breaks make us more alert, help us focus, and help our motivation. Rest can help prevent decision fatigue and procrastination. Breaks can increase productivity and even creativity. Working too long without breaks can lead to burnout. We are more able to treat ourselves and those around us—including our students—with patience when we feel more rested and less frazzled. Our students need to learn about the relationship between breaks and working well, and about the importance of sleep, too.
Sleep helps students cope with the demands of being awake, and it is essential for learning. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard explains, “the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.”
We could even think of sleep as part of the learning process. When we sleep, our brains work on storing the information we need in the right places, and they work on on getting rid of what we don’t need. When our brains filter out the extraneous stimuli that we encounter every day, it frees up space so that we can process and remember what’s important, connecting new input to established frameworks. Students are also better able to use what they’ve learned—engaging in creative problem-solving, for example—when they’ve gotten enough sleep.
To help them learn more effectively, we can inform our students about the importance of sleep, encourage them to take breaks, and discourage them from pulling all-nighters. We can do this when we give tips for success at the beginning of a semester, when we share effective study habits, and when we create our course syllabi and Canvas sites. For example, here’s a video about the importance of sleep that you can share with students. Depending on the discipline, some of us may even be able to include the topic of rest in the course content, assignments, or experiments.
If you’d like support in encouraging students to develop effective study and work habits that include breaks and adequate sleep, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you!
Exam Design Workshop
Tuesday, November 1st | 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. | DIF 432 | Sign up to attend
Are you happy with the exams in your course? Do you feel like they accurately reflect how much your students are learning? During this interactive session, we’ll help you ensure that you test what you mean to be testing. We’ll discuss the alignment of exam questions with your learning goals for students, and with what they spend their time doing in the course. We’ll also work on writing exams as transparently as possible, so that students can interpret the instructions, questions, and problems. We hope to see you there!