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Spacing and sleep: The perfect recipe for revision?

Spacing and sleep: The perfect recipe for revision?

5 min read
  • Sleep
  • Spacing & Interleaving
  • Study skills & exam prep

Spacing, the act of revisiting material little and often, is one of the best learning strategies a student can use for memory retention. Although it’s harder and more time-consuming than student-favourite cramming, the desirable difficulty hypothesis proposed by psychologist Robert Bjork states that difficult and effortful learning processes engage a deeper level of cognitive processing, resulting in better long-term memory recall.

Despite not being considered a revision technique, good quality sleep has also been shown to help with memory consolidation. This is because, while we sleep, our brain forms new neural connections between the different brain cells, which aid memory and learning.

Recent research suggests that interleaving sleep between spaced revision sessions can further enhance memory and learning by reactivating these newly learned memories and connecting them to pre-existing knowledge. But how effective is this relationship between spacing and sleep? Let’s take a closer look…

What the research says

One study looked at whether getting a good night’s sleep in-between learning sessions would increase the benefits of the spacing effect on learning. 40 people were recruited at the University of Lyon in France and were tasked with learning the French translation of 16 Swahili words. Half of the people learned the words in the morning and then relearned the words 12 hours later in the evening. The other half learned the words in the evening, slept, and then relearned the words the next morning. The researchers tested participants one week later and again six months later.

The researchers found that those people who had slept between the two learning sessions not only had better long-term retention of the French translations (as they had a higher number of successful recalls) but also spent 50% less time practising compared to the people who hadn’t slept. It seems that revising at night and then revisiting that material in the morning is more beneficial than revising twice in the same day.

How to use Spacing

Although spacing is more time-consuming and requires more planning on the students’ part, it is more beneficial to them in the long run. Research shows that students who used spacing techniques instead of cramming their revision performed 10% to 30% better in their final test than their peers who crammed. Another study found that students who spaced out their revision achieved, on average, 74% on their final test compared to the 49% average for students who crammed. But how can students implement spacing into their revision strategy?

The easiest way students can do this is to plan out their study schedule both on a weekly and monthly basis. For example, at a weekly level, you could study English on Tuesday and then revisit the information you learnt on Friday. And depending on how far away the exam is, at a monthly level, you can determine which topics to revisit, when and how often. Researchers suggest the following timeline as a rough guideline for when students should revisit material:

How Far Away The Test Is7 Days35 Days70 Days350 Days
Gap Between Revision Sessions3 Days8 Days12 Days27 Days
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How to improve sleep quality

Poor sleep affects all aspects of our lives, and needs to be a part of our day that we prioritise. At InnerDrive, we’ve created some tips that can help those struggling to get a good night’s sleep – here are 3 strategies to get you started…

Have a bedtime routine

It’s important that students get into the routine of going to bed at a certain time. Going to bed at a different time each night confuses the body’s internal alarm clock and disrupts your sleep patterns. By getting into the habit of sleeping and waking up at a specific time, your body’s internal clock will be more consistent.

Although it may not sound so fun and appealing, waking up at the same time on the weekend as you do in the week will benefit you. Not only will you feel less groggy and more energised, but you’ll be more productive throughout the day.

Get active

Not only is exercise a great way of improving mental health and overall well-being, it’s also great for improving sleep quality. This is because doing an hour’s exercise two hours before bed increases the blood flow in your arteries, raising your body temperature and consequently tiring you out. Getting active could be going for a run or even something as simple as a walk.

One form of exercise students can do is go on “awe walks”, which consist in focusing and appreciating the natural world around you instead of considering the walk as a means to an end. “Awe walks” are an effective mindfulness strategy that enable people to feel fully connected to their emotions; research shows that going on a 15-minute “awe walk” significantly improves mood. This may be a helpful way for students to de-stress at the end of the day, aiding their sleep quality.

Turn down the backlight on your phone

60% of students report feeling very agitated when they’re unable to access their phone, so many of them take their phone to bed with them – either to scroll through social media, use it as an alarm or both. Ideally, students would leave their phone in another room at night, as using their phone an hour before bed makes them almost three times as likely to sleep less than five hours a night, but it’s a habit that students are unlikely to break.

The next best thing students can do is to turn down the backlight of their phone. At night, our body produces more melatonin – the sleep hormone. This is why we feel tired when it’s dark outside. However, the bright light from our phones tricks our body into thinking it is daytime. As a result, we produce less melatonin, resulting in difficulty falling asleep. Turning down the brightness of their phone at least two hours before they go to sleep is less likely to impact melatonin producing, allowing students to get a better night’s rest.

Final thoughts

Spacing and sleep are both effective revision tools, that become even more powerful when used together. Not only does the combination of both enable students to learn more efficiently, but students’ long-term memory recall and subsequently their academic performance also benefits from it. Aside from spacing and sleep, check out which other things students should know about doing well in exams.

For more sleep tips, check out our guide about hidden benefits of sleep or for more general revision advice, check out our guide on the best ways to revise.

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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