We all know it from our days in school. There were days we had to study crazy facts about biology and chemistry. Every week we were forced to learn some hard French vocabulary. Our parents always told us to learn and revise all facts and vocabulary just before going to bed. And they were very right with this.
The Spacing Effect and Sleep
Prior research showed us already that the more we spread out our study workload over time the more we can remember afterward. This is called the Spacing effect. The spacing effect was discovered already in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus. We can all approve the spacing effect by our own. We know that it is not very efficient if we just cram everything we need to learn in only one study session into our head. If we are lucky we will remember a few vocabularies or facts during the exam the next day. But how much can you recall after a week? How much can you recall after a month or a year? We all know the sad answer: probably nothing. Nevertheless, we are doing it over and over again.
Prior studies have also proven that sleep has a great effect on our ability to learn new things. Whether we would like to learn a new language or practice maths. Sleep might be one of the most important factors for our learning success. It has been proven by several researchers that the brain activities which are involved while you are learning are replayed again during subsequent sleep (Ji & Wilson, 2007; Maquet et al., 2000; Peigneux et al., 2004). This reactivation within our brains has the effect that we can remember facts and memories much more effortlessly after we had enough sleep.
Relearn Faster and Retain Longer
French researchers now found out that if we sleep between two learning sessions we can cut the amount of practice we need by half. They also proved that by sleeping between learning sessions we experience a “much better long-term retention”. The results of their studies were published in a paper called “Relearn Faster and Retain Longer – Along With Practice, Sleep Makes Perfect”.
Relearn Faster and Retain Longer – Along with Practice, Sleep Makes Perfect by Stéphanie Mazza, Emilie Gerbier, Marie-Paule Gustin, Zumrut Kasikci, Oliver Koenig, Thomas C. Toppino, Michel Magnin published in October 2016 in Psychological Science (vol. 27 no. 10)
The group of researchers asked forty participants to learn the French translation of sixteen Swahili words until perfection. Twelve hours later all forty participants were given the chance to relearn the material. The researchers divided the participants into three different groups. One group slept between the sessions. They had the first learning session at 9PM followed by a good night sleep. The first group had the relearn session at 9AM the next morning. The second group did not sleep between the learning sessions. They had the learning and relearning sessions at 9AM and 9PM. The third group was assigned to control conditions.
The experiment showed that “unrecallable items were reacquired faster during relearning in the sleep group”. The experiment also showed a positive correlation between relearning speed and 1-week recall to the time participants spent asleep. If you spent the time between two learning sessions with sleep rather than with wakeful activities you are studying much more efficiently. The combination of sleep and multiple study sessions “facilitates relearning and enhances your long-term retention”. Participants of the study who did not sleep during the two learnings sessions had a lower level of memory. Therefore they had to bring up more effort to reach the same level of memory as the sleep group had. Nevertheless, participants who did not sleep during two learning sessions did not reach the same level of long-term retention compared to participants who did sleep during learnings sessions.
Learn Sleep Relearn: What’s in it for me?
The results of this study show that the sequence of learning-sleeping-relearning is the most efficient learning pattern. This is especially true when it comes to long-term retention of memories. In order to learn more efficiently and to cut the amount of practice you need in half, you should implement a new study schedule. Try to implement study sessions in the evening shortly before going to bed. Get a sufficient amount of sleep – for most people, this will be around seven to eight hours. Right after your morning routine and your breakfast you schedule your relearning session. During your relearning session repeat everything you learned and tried to memorize the evening before. Repeat especially the things that you were not able to keep in mind. This will not only cut your exercise time in half but it will also ensure a solid long-term retention of the learning content.
How do you study? Will you implement the practice of learning-sleeping-relearning? Leave your opinion in the comments and I will join the discussion!
S. Mazza, E. Gerbier, M.-P. Gustin, Z. Kasikci, O. Koenig, T. C. Toppino, M. Magnin. Relearn Faster and Retain Longer: Along With Practice, Sleep Makes Perfect. Psychological Science, 2016; DOI: 10.1177/0956797616659930
Ji, D., & Wilson, M. A. (2007). Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 100–107. doi:10.1038/nn1825
Maquet, P., Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Fuchs, S., Petiau, C., Phillips, C., . . . Cleeremans, A. (2000). Experience-dependent changes in cerebral activation during human REM sleep. Nature Neuroscience, 3, 831–836. doi:10.1038/77744
Peigneux, P., Laureys, S., Fuchs, S., Collette, F., Perrin, F., Reggers, J., . . . Maquet, P. (2004). Are spatial memories strengthened in the human hippocampus during slow wave sleep? Neuron, 44, 535–545. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2004.10.007