Rest Assured: Studies Show Sleep Affects Learning in Medical School

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • We spend all of our lives learning, but a lot of measured learning comes in the form of studying; whether that’s in school, university, or in med school. Being able to retain this information is vital to progress as a student.

    When reaching adulthood, there can regularly be new nuggets of information that you are required to remember, which is typically in the workplace or perhaps as a parent.

    Plenty of studies based on the human memory have pointed to the fact that you should distribute your practice in order to learn more effectively. What this means is that the less crammed your study time is, the more likely you are to retain vital information further down the line, compared to forcing a lot of info in a short space of time, e.g. one study session.

    When turning to the effects of sleep on learning, research cites that if you study new material and then allow time to sleep, you are much more likely to remember the information you just learned compared to if you study and then remain awake for an equal amount of time. 

    The effects of sleep on your memory

    Without realizing it, when you study, you are igniting a process that consists of three factors;

    · Acquisition

    · Consolidation

    · Recall

    First of all, acquisition is the learning of new information, then you have consolidation which whereby the new information becomes ingrained in your memory. Finally, you have recall which is the act of being able to access the information you have stored as and when you require it.

    The first and last factors we mentioned (acquisition and recall) are functions that are implemented when someone isn’t sleeping, and this is because they need choose to latch on to the information.

    Consolidation, on the other hand, occurs when you are sleeping, and this highlights the fact of how important sleep is when it comes to the formation and creation of your memories.

    If you’re missing high-quality sleep in your life, the information won’t consolidate, leaving the ability to recall this information sitting on the sidelines almost completely unable to assist you when you need it most. will be much harder.

    What sleep does to studying

    Don’t underestimate how bad it is to miss out on sleep when you are studying. For students of all levels, most studies are building up for a final of some description, such as test, exams and presentations.

    Studying for these types of things can stretch out over the course of months, and the days can often be pretty long. While you’re also thinking about eating right, working, studying and sleeping, it can get quite full-on.

    By missing sleep, you’re leaving yourself short on the ability to perform, thus jeopardizing your learning capacity, not to mention the risk to achieving your goals. If you find that you can’t sleep well in the evenings, why not throw a power nap or two in during the day? They can be just as effective as a full night’s sleep!

    More on sleep deprivation

    Without sleep, you simply would not survive. If you’ve ever slept poorly you will know how it feels the following day and suffering from sluggish mental function along with general tiredness can cause some serious issues.

    Other ill-effects include feeling irritable, groggy and cloudy-minded, while more importantly for students it can lead to the impeding of your capability when it comes to receiving information. In other words, not getting enough sleep can make learning new material tough.

    Deprived sleep can also affect negatively on overall mood. When your mood is put to the test in this way, the instability can make processing new information far more problematic.

    What about suitable levels of sleep?

    You simply can’t beat notching up some top-quality sleep. High standards of sleep give you great memory formation, as well as helping your immune system to function correctly, not to mention helping you to recover and repair, while also keeping your moods regulated as we touched on earlier.

    All of these things are essential to be able to study at maximum capacity, so, with just 7-9 hours sleep each night, paired with a regular bedtime routine, you are making all the right moves towards helping your studying to be a success.

    Keep your tech away from the bedroom and allow your brain to unwind at least an hour before bed, and don’t be tempted to pull all-nighters that are fueled by strong black coffee. Keep the caffeine for studying before 3pm, or you will be too wired to rest properly.

    Remember that forcing your studying late at night is not a conducive way to learn and fill the memory for long-term fruitful outcomes. Therefore, give yourself time to rest, because you deserve it, you need it and you will prosper from it!