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Can napping help your students' academic performance?

Can napping help your students’ academic performance?

6 min read
  • Sleep
  • Study skills & exam prep

Our students are suffering from a sleep crisis. Many do not get enough of it, and we are quite literally sleep-walking into this problem. But what about napping? Can taking a quick daytime nap help students study better?

Well, some studies show that regular or longer mid-day naps can significantly help improve night-time sleep quality. And with 69% of students reporting that they sleep for 6 hours or less during exam season instead of the recommended 8 hours or more, naps may be a strategy worth exploring.

So, let’s take a look at what the research suggests, and why it’s so important to focus on students’ sleep. Read on to learn about:

  • What the research says
  • The role of napping in revision
  • Why sleep is so important for learning
  • Ways for students to improve their sleep

What does the research say about napping?

In one study, researchers investigated what was more effective to help students perform on a test: last-minute studying, or napping?

All participants had 2 hours and 20 minutes to learn facts, then spent the following hour in one of three groups:

  1. Nap group – This group had a 1-hour nap break.
  2. Cram group – This group had a 1-hour cramming session to go over what they had learnt.
  3. Wake group – This group stayed awake and watched a movie during their 1-hour break.

They were then tested on the information twice: after 30 minutes, and after a week. The researchers found that for both tests, the students who napped remembered more than those in the other two groups.

This research suggests that taking a nap break may be one of the best things a student can do to boost their studying. Unlike cramming, which offers a short-lived memory boost, the memory benefits of naps were true for both the short and long term.

A word of caution

We can see from the research that naps between study sessions may trump staying awake or cramming. However, this doesn’t necessarily suggest that napping is essential for revision – rather that it is better than the other two options for enhancing students’ recall.

Another thing to consider is that naps should ideally range between 15 and 30 minutes – any longer and students could enter deep sleep. When a deeper sleep is interrupted, students can experience “sleep inertia” (i.e., waking up feeling groggy), which impairs their memory and cognitive abilities throughout the day – doing more harm than good.

Sleep inertia also makes students want to go back to bed. If they do, they won’t have as much revision time and will find it harder to sleep at night. The participants in the study had researchers to wake them up, but your students may not…

Additionally, although integrating naps to their study breaks can be effective, students shouldn’t nap for too long. The research isn’t perfectly clear on how long a nap should be, but napping for over 60 minutes or too late in the day may actually mean they won’t feel tired again until well after their bedtime.

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Why is sleeping so important for learning?

In general, sleeping is one of the best studying strategies. For example, we were particularly interested in hearing about the “8-hour sleep challenge”, where 71% of students who committed to sleeping 8 hours a night during exam week performed much better than their peers who stayed up to cram.

So, why is that? Well, when we sleep, new connections form between our brain cells. These connections not only help with recalling information but also improve how well we make links between new and old information.

There are many other benefits of having enough sleep, such as:

How can students get better sleep?

Even though this study shows that naps can be helpful for memory, it’s important to consider why students feel the urge to nap in the first place – most of the time, it’s because they’re not getting enough sleep.

There are many reasons why students are getting so little sleep. The first is that they often don’t know how important sleep is to their learning and well-being. Start by explaining these findings to your students and telling them that they should aim for 8-10 hours of sleep per night.

Another reason is that students often struggle to fall asleep because of bad bedtime habits. To remedy this, they can:

1. Keep up a consistent schedule of good-quality sleep

Research has shown that consistently having a good quality of sleep with of an appropriate duration is strongly associated with better grades.

Students can ensure that they improve their sleep quality by putting away their screens between 30 and 90 minutes before bed and limiting caffeinated drinks in the evening. Teenagers should aim for at least 9 hours of sleep (more for younger ones, slightly less for older students who need at least 8 hours of sleep per night). It’s only when students do this consistently that they will really see improvements in their memory and productivity.

2. Combine sleep with Spacing

Spacing is one of the most effective study techniques, and involves revisiting material little and often to remember it better in the long term. And when students combine Spacing with a full night’s sleep, this can make even more of an improvement to their memory.

One study found that students who studied in the evening, slept, then re-visited learning material the next day had better long-term memory of the content than those who didn’t sleep between study sessions.

Students in the study who used Spacing and sleep also spent 50% less time studying, which makes splitting up revision sessions with a good night’s sleep a productive use of students’ time.

3. Avoid all-nighters

The short-term benefit of cramming is simply not worth the stress and students will find it better to prioritise their 8 hours of sleep instead of staying up to study. Although students may think cramming works, it is an ineffective strategy as there is not enough time for information to be secured in their long-term memory.

When students have a full night’s sleep instead of cramming, they can enter each stage of sleep, meaning that their brains can solidify important information into their long-term memory. Then, they won’t have to rely on constant napping during the day.

4. Do light exercise

When students get moving, they can reap similar benefits as taking a nap. Research has found that exercising after studying can improve the ability to retain and recall information across students of all ages, as well as provide them with an energy boost.

So, partaking in exercise could be a better alternative to napping, especially when it is later in the day or if napping is a less viable option.

Final thoughts

Often, students believe that staying up to get in those few extra hours of studying before a test can help them do better. However, research suggests that the opposite is true.

Napping has its pros and cons. It’s great for memory enhancement in students but it can be easy to make napping mistakes, such as napping too late in the day or napping for too long. Instead, students should prioritise a productive routine that incorporates good-quality sleep, effective studying strategies and exercise.

Getting enough sleep can help improve students’ memory, making a quick nap during a study break one of the easiest ways to boost learning – as long as it’s accompanied by effective learning strategies.

For more tips on how students can use sleep to their advantage, have a look at our guide on Sleep and Learning.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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