Getting enough sleep is an under-valued but crucial part of learning. Contrary to students’ belief that staying up all night to cram for an exam will lead to higher scores, truth is, the need for a good night’s rest is even more important than finishing homework or studying for a test.

A recent study in the journal Child Development showed that sacrificing sleep in order to study will actually backfire. The study followed 535 Los Angeles high school students for 14 days, tracking how long they slept, as well as how well they understood material being taught in class and how they performed on a test, quiz, or homework.

“Although the researchers expected that extra hours of studying that ate into sleep time might create problems in terms of students’ understanding of what they were taught in class, they were surprised to find that diminishing sleep in order to study was actually associated with doing more poorly on a test, quiz, or homework,” Science Daily wrote.

“Reduced sleep … accounts for the increase in academic problems that occurs after days of increased studying,” said UCLA scientist Andrew Fuligni. “Although these nights of extra studying may seem necessary, they can come at a cost.”

In another study by a research team at the University of York, researchers found that sleep even helps boost language acquisition skills in young children. “Children’s ability to recall and recognize new words improved approximately 12 hours after training, but only if sleep occurs,” said Dr. Lisa Henderson, a lead researcher on the study. “The key effects were maintained one week later, suggesting that these new words are retained in long-term memory.” The study, published in Developmental Science, shows that when they sleep enough, children show the same learning patterns as adults.

Yet even with the well-documented evidence that sleep is necessary to learning, students continue to face increasing demands on their time. Kids often participate in extracurricular activities as well as hours of homework each night.

What’s really happening during sleep?

Sleep happens in several stages, with each phase serving a particular purpose. The human body takes care of its physical needs first. Quickly passing through stages one and two, which are brief, the body settles into several hours of stage three and four sleep. During these stages, neurons in the brain have synchronized into a regular rhythm and the body begins to repair itself. The immune system is restored, muscles and cardiovascular systems are rejuvenated and the positive effects on metabolism and muscle growth from exercise take effect.

“The reason to get a good night’s sleep is really so you can enjoy the next day and so you can consolidate what you did the day before,” said Dr. Matt Carter, senior fellow at the University of Washington in a recent webinar.

Towards the end of a typical six- to eight-hour night of sleep, the brain gets its chance at rejuvenation, during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This is the stage that’s crucial for learners because the brain solidifies all that was taken in the day before and clears out old, unnecessary memories to make room for new information.

“In REM sleep your brain is basically replaying everything that happened during the day and consolidating what you’ve learned,” Carter said. During the learning process, the brain’s synapses fire in particular patterns. At night, those patterns are firing over and over again, strengthening the path. Equally important, there are many small details the brain remembers from the previous day that it won’t need. During REM sleep the brain purges the unnecessary details to make room for new learning the following day.

“If you didn’t get a good night’s sleep it’s really hard to learn new things because you didn’t clear out all the synaptic connections,” said Carter. The brain-rejuvenating functions happen in REM sleep, a later sleep stage, so if a student doesn’t sleep enough he won’t spend much time in REM.

Just as with adults, sleep-deprived kids won’t be able to focus as well, and over time, the effects of sleep deprivation will wear on the body.

What’s the solution?

Educator Madeline Levine and author of Teach Your Children Well says high schools should adjust their schedules to meet the needs of adolescents. School should start at 10 a.m. to help ensure high school students get the nine hours they need. That would go a long way in helping them to focus in class and could even prevent depression, a condition increasingly linked to lack of sleep.

And it’s not just about the number of hours in bed – it’s about the quality of sleep. “Sleep is something you can prepare for and be deliberate about,” Carter said, adding that people assume sleep comes naturally to kids. But for young ones, it’s especially important to establish a routine, not to eat carbohydrates before sleep, and to avoid bright screens before bed — the glow biologically resets circadian rhythms that respond to how much light enters the eye. For kids who have trouble falling asleep, parents should teach them relaxation techniques like taking deep breaths and listening to slow tempo music – that helps the neurons fall into their synchronized pattern quicker.


Why Sleeping May Be More Important Than Studying 11 January,2013Katrina Schwartz

  • Guys… the students that didn’t get enough sleep because they spent all night long studying were destined to fail anyway… they knew how unprepared they were and that’s why they had to study for more hours… 😉

  • Suggestion for teachers: if you have a lethargic student, find out why. The situation at home could be chaotic, the student could be ill, or it could be something as simple as too much availability of technology when the student should be sleeping. All problems a parent/teacher talk may well solve. Pulling all-nighters to study for a test? Refer the student for regular homework help or tutoring. There is a reason for everything…we try to provide a solution for our kids.

  • In grade and middle schools in Newark, NJ, the issue is often children and young teens with television or X-box’s in their bedrooms. This is boys and girls. One special ed 5th grade boy could not keep his eyes open in class this week. Issue was, he watched television until 1:00 AM the night before, unbeknownst to his mother. (father absent). This is so common. One boy couldn’t keep his eyes open, he was watching horror movies on his electronic portable device until 3:00 AM. I’ve had so many students with the same story from 5th through 8th grade.

  • The “solution?” 10am start? Most HS students will not take that time to sleep in, what about teaching students to get into bed a bit earlier? Can you guarantee students will utilize the time give for sleep? Social media is to easy to access and drains students of precious to which they could be banking sleep. It comes to Health Class to educate and parents to be sure students are being accountable to their physical, mental and emotional needs! Just my thought.

    • Nicki S.

      Physiologically, high schoolers are biologically programmed to stay up later and also wake up later in their natural schedules compared to adults. That is why (I believe) the article is suggesting this time.

  • Resilient Mom

    If High School starts at 10 am, when do the kids have a chance for sports after school? Kids need daylight hours for the outdoor sports. Suggesting that kids start school at 10 am is out of touch with reality. My son is taking AP Chemistry and 3 other APs plus he’s on a basketball team and the coach makes you stay at school until the 7 pm game so the kids don’t get to do homework until 10 pm. Plus the AP Chemistry teacher encourages students to come for help at 5:30 am. Sometimes my son gets 3-4 hours of sleep. The problem is not the start times, it is a combination of too much homework, unethical expectations in high school sports, competition to get into prestigious high schools, and more. If my son could only get to bed by 10 pm,, he’d be so much happier. Instead he’s a zombie from Tuesday through Friday until he can catch up on sleep during the weekend.

    • Oggy

      That’s exactly the problem with today’s society. Too much stuff thrown at children, and completely neglecting their right to actually be – children. Tons of school assignments dozens of extra curricula activities, few additional advanced programs and what’s left? Time to eat and maybe go to toilet, not much more. When do children have time to play and socialize?

      Starting the school at 10 am and loosing up a bit on other aspects would definitely help children preserve their right for a childhood. If current way continue, i can’t say other but what’s the difference between this and slavery? Children are forced into 24/7 learning and activities so they prepare for modern world? So sad, so missing the point of life, so useless…

    • njovile

      Your son might have too many ‘chores’ at a time, self-chosen or willing to please the parents/ society/ image? Even when you have multiple interests (which has applied to me all my life) as a child the adults have to help the kids to make choices for a special period. I agree with the studies which state that school earlier than 9 am ist nonsense. We here in Germany often start at 7.30 am (vocational school + grammar school, college, GCSE-classes,i.e. students from 16 ys on), with students having a 1 hour trip to school. Before 9 am most of them are hardly able to concentrate for more than 10 minutes, if at all. Sometimes my older college students realize this and give up certain activities for a limited period of time. Usually they achieve better marks in all subjects! This is a 30-year experience, which shows that we already had the problem before the digital age.

  • RadicalEd

    Read this article instead of sleeping, failed calculus test.

  • Carlos

    Hi pam, we need to sleep more :). Oh yes dr ross!!

  • School needs to change 180 degrees. They start school at 8am to gear the children up to be adults working in monotonous jobs where their brain function needs to be low in order to tolerate it. A new way of teaching would start individual learning at the 9th grade and no longer make high school compulsory. We’re not educating our children to thrive we are educating them to survive. Take a step back and imagine education from the ground up. You will come up with something very different than todays status quo.

  • chandrasekaran

    sure, after sleeping we are refreshed and can do more work with lot of concentration.Also the child are more active.

  • ThinkOutHere

    I completely agree. Giving the body what it needs, such as the proper nutrients and rest, all contribute to being in an optimal state for learning. The body is a machine and it needs the proper maintenance to perform at its best.

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  • Romeo

    If you havent done any work for an exam, staying up all night WILL CERTAINLY increase your test result..
    I think the point is, it is better to study in advance and get a good nights sleep

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  • DaisyOMP

    Having a good night rest is very important. Not sleeping well daily could interfere with your daily routines. It could affect the way you learn. You will not be able to fully grasp the material you are trying to learn. Making it hard for you to understand the material. Staying up late to study comes with disadvantages. By trying to study all night you are not really doing yourself any good. It is better to get a good night sleep to be refreshed and ready to take on the day. From experience I have gone days with out sleeping to study for an exam or doing homework. The next day I was very spaced out and couldn’t pay very good attention in my classes or do as well as I hoped to on my schoolwork. Sometimes you just have to go against the beliefs of putting off sleep before homework.

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  • Hadjer Menni



Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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