Most students do not sleep enough. Most students think they’re studying smart by learning into the night and then starting again at the crack of dawn. More hours to study means higher marks, right? Not really. In this article, we’re going to discuss how sleep will boost your HSC and ensure you achieve more in less time.
In this article about sleep and HSC study, we discuss:
With that in mind, let’s look at what happens when we ignore sleep.
Why all-nighters are the worst way to study
Have you ever done this? You’ve had an assessment due, you’ve procrastinated all week and left it to the night before. The day it’s due, you also have an exam. So, you figure you can kill two birds with one stone and just pull an all-nighter – you’ll finish that English multi-modal and you’ll prepare for that Maths Ext 1 exam. If you’ve studied it the night before, it’ll be easier to recall, right?
This is a common scenario for students, especially in senior years. The more the workload piles up, the more inclined students are inclined to work through the night. But, all-nighters might get an assessment done, but you will struggle to recall much, if any, of the key information you’ve sought to retain.
Multiple studies show that the ability to successfully memorise information – lists of names or words – diminishes exponentially with a lack of sleep. So does accuracy.
One study where participants were asked to perform a driving related task (pushing a button in response to stimuli) and a recall task after less than 2 hours of sleep performed 400% worse than their counterparts who slept a healthy 8 hours (Walker, Why We Sleep P.136).
What does this mean for the assessment tasks you’ve been preparing? Well, your English presentation might look great, but your retention of the content on your slides and your ability to speak off the cuff will suffer significantly. Instead of alert confidence, you’ll be the student awkwardly focused on their cards. When you sit your Maths exam later that day, you’ll be increasingly fatigued. Studies have proven that when people are fatigued after they’ve attempted to retain information, they make mistakes and confuse the information they’ve learned. In one study, participants from two groups were made to memorise facts while they were in an MRI – one group was sleep deprived and the other was fresh. The following day, after having a full night’s sleep to recover they were tested. The sleep-deprived group performed on average 40% worse than the control group. (Walker, 154).
This occurs for two reasons:
Firstly, information and movement are both retained most effectively after repeated actions. Solving equations again or again or practising a piece of music multiple times. The repetition of movements – practising a scale or handwriting a draft essay – or deductive process – solving an equation – helps people store that information by shaping the plasticity of their brains.
Secondly, and most importantly, sleep is essential for helping us to retain information because sleep moves information from short term to long term memory. Furthermore, when we are sleep deprived, we fail at recall and aptitude tasks because our recall is so impaired.
What does this mean for us? Well, on the one hand, regular study is essential for long term recall and aptitude. And, on the other hand, regular sleep – and certainly not sleep impairment – is essential to ensure we can complete tasks that are mechanical or involve recall effectively.
To see why let’s have broad look at what sleep does and then discuss the importance of sleep.
What sleep does
When we sleep our brains perform a cleanup. Our brains move information around from one part to another part and discard unused pieces of information.
We know this process occurs, but we are still trying to understand its mechanism. We do know that sleep occurs in different cycles and that these are related to the processing and retention of information and skills.
There are 4 stages of sleep – 3 non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) and 1 rapid eye movement (REM). We cycle through these stages multiple times throughout the night.
Let’s have a brief look at what they are and what they do:
Non-REM Stage 1
This stage lasts between 1 to 5 minutes – this is the dozing off stage. Our body and brain slow and prepares to enter the 2nd stage.
N-REM Stage 2
The 2nd sleep stage lasts 10 – 60 minutes – This is a deeper stage of sleep than NREM 1. It’s harder to wake people in NREM 2 as there are bursts of brain activity that actively prevent people from being roused.
NREM 2 sleep accounts for about 50% of the amount we sleep. It prepares us for NREM 3 where most of the physically restorative aspects of sleep occur.
N-REM Stage 3
The 3rd sleep stage occurs for between 20 – 40 minutes. As we fall deeper into NREM 3 sleep, we experience more “delta waves”. Most sleep researchers believe that this stage of sleep is crucial for:
Contributions to insightful thinking, creativity, and memory
REM Sleep happens in bursts of 10 – 60 minutes – This stage of sleep has the most brain activity. The body becomes somewhat paralysed and we experience strong and consistent bursts of electrical activity in our brains called “sleep spindles”.
Sleep researchers believe that our essential cognitive functions – learning, memory, creativity – are all supported by REM sleep. Without it, our faculties for these abilities become regularly impaired. Initially, REM sleep occurs for a few minutes here and there, but as the night progresses we experience longer bouts of REM sleep.
We don’t drop into REM sleep until we’ve been asleep for at least 90 minutes and our longest cycles of REM sleep occur after about 5-6 hours of sleep.
What do the sleep cycles mean for information retention?
As the cycles above illustrate, it’s the NREM 3 and REM sleep where most of our cognitive functions and restored or developed.
However, sleep occurs in cycles, we need to be in NREM 3 sleep before we start to benefit from sleep. But we need at least an hour, if not longer, of sleep to arrive there. Similarly, REM sleep requires us to have at least 90 minutes of sleep before it begins and we need to have been through several cycles before it becomes most effective.
When we pull all-nighters or sleep for less than 5 or 6 hours, our bodies and minds don’t get the benefits of sleep.
To return to the student grabbing two hours of sleep before they go to school for their exam and presentation, they’re not giving their brain the opportunity to process and retain the information they need to succeed.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at why consistent sleep is important for study (and life).
The importance of consistent sleep for study (and life)
We’ve looked at an example of a student pulling an all-nighter. It’s a common scenario, but students don’t pull all-nighters every night. Many students, however, skimp on sleep regularly.
While there is much about sleep we don’t understand, research has drawn significant connections between lack of sleep and obesity, mortality, and cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Studies show that a night of 2 hours or less sleep depletes cognitive function by 400% (Walker, 136). What is striking is that subjects also show that the same level of impairment when they sleep for 6 hours or less a night for more than 6-10 days. What’s more, the participants aren’t aware they are functioning in an impaired way the same way somebody has pulled an all-nighter will!
A consistent pattern of poor sleep affects our ability to retain newly learned information, recall it, or apply it.
This means that while you might be studying consistently over several weeks if you’re not getting proper consistent, restful and restorative sleep, your diligence is for nothing.
Another thing that affects students is the ability to fall asleep at a regular time and in a timely manner. This has a lot to do with the sleep hygiene of teenagers.
Walker and his colleagues performed another study at MIT where they assessed the sleep quality of a cohort of students over the course of a semester.
The students who slept less and slept inconsistently scored worse than those with healthy habits.
Late-night cramming might seem like a means to an end for getting that high ATAR, but, really, the answer lies in organisation and sleep hygiene.
What’s sleep hygiene?
What is sleep hygiene? Sleep hygiene is when we keep an environment and routine that aids us in falling asleep.
Things that are essential for good sleep hygiene are:
Maintaining a quiet bedroom
Ensuring that your bedroom is comfortable
Staying clear of electronic devices
Employing relaxation methods
Having healthy daytime habits
Keeping a consistent sleep schedule.
If we have erratic bedtimes or have loud and bright bedrooms we lack the stimuli that our body have developed to lull us to sleep. This is especially important for teenagers who require more sleep for cognitive development than adults. A common issue that faces people in contemporary society is access to devices. Blue screens and bright tables trick our circadian rhythm into going out of whack. The light from devices – blue light filter or no – triggers us to become alert and wakeful when we should be preparing for NREM 1 sleep.
It’s important for teenagers (and that includes you, who is reading this in bed at 12 AM), to turn off their devices well before bed. If you find the temptation too much, buy an old fashioned alarm clock and charge your devices outside of the bedroom.
Sleep hygiene has lifelong implications. Yes, going to sleep at a regular time, not having distracting and wakeful devices to hand, and having a dim or dark, comfortable bedroom are all really important for retaining information and being able to recall it with ease and accuracy, but they also set healthy patterns that stave off diseases of cognitive decline.
There is much we don’t know about the causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but we do know that poor sleep and ongoing sleep deprivation are significant contributors. Studies have shown that patients who receive more natural, regular sleep inhibit the disease and slowly reverse it. More important though, is to sleep properly your whole life to prevent it in the first place.
Most importantly for teenage students, though, regular sleep aids learning. Walker argues that “You can’t pull an all-nighter and still learn effectively,” this is because of the impact lack of sleep has on the hippocampus’ ability to make new memories. A regular sleeping and pattern and good sleep hygiene aids the hippocampus in its job.
Furthermore, students should fear the afternoon power nap. If your body is telling you to take a nap, you need one. Obviously, you need to set limits and you don’t want to disrupt your nightly sleep. But snatching 30 minutes to an hour here and there when required will keep you refreshed and focused ready to learn and process information that will be retained.
In a study of 44 participants, the subjects underwent two intense sessions of learning, once at midday and later at 6:00 PM. Half of them were allowed to snatch a nap. The other bunch were less fortunate, they needed to soldier through and perform standard daily activities. The results? The nappers learned effectively all day long – achieving strong results at midday and 6 PM. The sleep-deprived subjects performed poorly in the 6 PM sessions that napped between learning sessions learned just as easily at 6:00 PM as they did at noon. The group that didn’t nap, however, experienced a significant decrease in learning ability
What does this tell you? That prioritising sleep is a key factor in getting the marks you need. Don’t believe us, let’s see what some of our alumni say.
What 95+ ATAR students say about sleep
One thing our high scoring graduates and scholarship students all have in common is healthy sleep routines. In their talks to students, webinar presentations, and blog articles, the importance of sleep is bought up again and again.
This what a selection of past high achievers have to say:
This is something lots of HSC students neglect, but the truth is that sleep, food and exercise affect your ability to study. You need at least 7 hours of sleep or your body won’t function properly. Studying when your body is tired is pointless, because you won’t retain the information. If you don’t get enough sleep, you start overworking the body, which leads to sickness. Just picture the amount of time you’ve wasted by spending a week sick in bed, unable to get up. Sleep is essential during the HSC, you need a fresh mind each day and that should never be compromised.
Sleep is one of the things most HSC students fail to recognise the importance of.
Too often I hear about students who’ve stayed up until 3am studying for their extension 2 exam the next day. No sleep means that not only are you going to be tired for the test, but also your mental capacity and ability to think will also be reduced. All in all, resulting in a test result that is much less than you should have got.
Even if you haven’t studied to a level that you’re comfortable with during the night before your test, it’s always a better idea to close the books and walk into the exam room with a fresh mind, and a good night’s sleep. During my HSC year, even during my trials and other exam blocks, I got 10 hours of sleep, from 10pm to 8am to ensure that I was always feeling fresh and ready to tackle whatever I had to do that day.
Getting a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast really does make a difference.
In year 11, a common problem among students is that everybody seems to get less sleep.
This is due to a number of factors, mainly increased homework loads, tutoring/activities after school etc.
However, with my full schedule, I still maintained a 10:30 deadline for when I had to go to sleep.
This meant that by the time I had to wake up, I had at least 8 hours of sleep, which is the bare minimum for my age group. It also meant that I used the time that I had to study and do homework more efficiently, meaning less procrastination and more effective revision!
A good breakfast is also very important. You must be fuelled so that you’re fully energised before school starts. This gets your day off to a good start.
From personal experience, I know that a 3-5 hour sleeping schedule is NOT sustainable for the entire year, especially around exam periods. It can burn you out really quickly and take you out of a stable routine.
What should you take away from this?
Hard work and a solid study ethic doesn’t mean sacrificing your sleep. Sleep is a key component to study success. Instead of bouncing from one all-nighter to the next, speak to your school teachers, Matrix tutors and teachers, and your parents about getting help so you can be organised and get the rest you need to succeed.