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7 min read

is sleep the secret to exam success?

written by Liz Tabron

updated 07.04.2022

studying for exams

Exam time - it’s a challenging and stressful experience for sure and sleep may be the last thing on your mind when it comes to studying for exams. You may think that you can just skimp on sleep and instead cram in some extra revision time to make sure you get the best possible exam results, but this is actually the worst thing that you could do. Sleep is vital for feeling and performing at your very best, which makes a good night’s sleep more important than ever when it comes to studying for exams. Read on to discover how sleep can positively impact grades and why it really is the secret to exam success.

why is sleep important for exam success?

Good quality sleep is associated with better grades, recall, mood and health, and when students don’t get enough shut-eye, they miss out on REM sleep, which is vital for cognitive performance and what’s needed the most when it comes to exam revision. 

To give you a better understanding of how sleep can have a positive impact on exam results, it’s helpful to understand just how sleep actually works. During sleep, our brain cycles through various stages of sleep several times throughout the night, from REM (rapid eye movement) to deep sleep and back again. 

Early on in our sleep we spend more time in NREM (deep) sleep, the phase in which growth hormones are released, and less time in REM sleep. As the night progresses the time spent in deep sleep decreases.  It is widely thought that REM sleep is for consolidation of certain types of memories, so waking too early can be disruptive to memory. When rebounding from a night of poor quality sleep we spend even more time in deep sleep. 

how much sleep do students need?

Teenagers need to aim for 8-10 hours worth of sleep each night and should focus on sleeping well for at least a week leading up to exam time. Understandably, students are under a lot of stress during exams and are more likely to up their caffeine intake, disrupting their sleep and possibly leading to a cycle of caffeine reliance.  Spending increased amounts of time exposed to bright light from computers and phones was once thought to be a big reason for sleep disruption, however recent studies have shown the disruption from blue light to be minimal. However the fear of missing out (FOMO) on notifications and social media updates causes the release of wake promoting hormones and is a major sleep disruptor. 

Lack of quality sleep has a negative impact on memory, mood and logical reasoning, impairing the skills that you require to perform well during exam time. Missing out on sleep means it’s harder to pay attention and commit new information to memory. 

Making sure you have a good study schedule, which includes time for exercise and plenty of quality sleep, really is the way to go to ensure exam success. At all costs, avoid staying up late to study, as sacrificing sleep for revision really won’t do anything to help improve your performance. Stick to a regular sleep schedule, so you wake up each morning feeling fresh and prepared for the day ahead.

how to sleep better when studying for exams 

Students sure have a lot to think about when it comes to exam revision, and the one most important thing is to remember to get plenty of quality sleep. Here’s some top tips for improving your sleep during this stressful time.

Can napping improve your memory? - Napping right after you’ve learnt something can, for some, be an effective way to help commit new information to memory.  Not everyone will see this benefit, but if you are one of the people who do, make sure to limit your nap time to around 20 minutes and avoid napping once it gets to late afternoon, otherwise you may find it difficult to fall asleep later that night. Napping at the wrong times can be detrimental.

Have a regular sleep schedule - consistent sleep can help to improve academic performance, so stick to going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, and that includes weekends too.

Avoid screen time just before bed - electronic devices such as mobile phones, laptops and tablets promote FOMO, with notifications and social media to hand, your body will release waking hormones to keep you alert. Find a routine of putting your devices away and out of mind before bedtime, and instead relax with a book or listen to some soothing music.

The perfect sleep environment - your bedroom should be as cool, dark and quiet as possible to help promote a better night’s sleep. A bedroom that’s on the cool side will encourage your body to drop to the core temperature that’s required for restful sleep.

Sleep in total comfort - it’s a lot easier to fall asleep when you are completely comfortable and so if you can feel the springs on your mattress, consider getting a mattress topper, which will add an extra layer of comfort and luxury for a better night’s sleep. Or it may be time for a new mattress.

Daily exercise - exercising every day goes a long way to improving sleep quality, so go outdoors soon after you wake up and go for a brisk walk or jog for an energy boost. A walk in the morning exposes the body to natural light which will help stop the production of melatonin, making you feel more awake, alert and ready for the day. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as this raises your body temperature and stress hormones such as cortisol.

So, if you want to reach your full potential and get your best exam results ever, the most simple yet effective thing that you can do to help you achieve this is to get plenty of quality sleep and put an end to any panicky last-minute revision!

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