In school and life, I’ve found that if I study something one day, I often remember more the next morning after getting a full night’s sleep. Musicians and athletes report the same phenomena; if you learn a new song or practice a new skill, it seems to get easier the next day. What’s behind this boosted ability?
Dr. Robert Stickgold, a sleep expert at Harvard Medical School, has a theory. “When we first form memories, they’re in a very raw and fragile form,” explains Stickgold. “Sleep seems to be a privileged time when the brain goes back through recent memories and decides both what to keep and what not to keep. During a night of sleep, some memories are strengthened.”
Part of accessing memory effectively involves forgetting memories that aren’t important and strengthening memories that we will need again. Mnemnonic strategies, like those found in Unit 5 of the SMARTS curriculum, can strengthen memories, as can active learning, repeated practice, and sleep.
Dr. Stickgold attempted to measure the impact of sleep on challenging memory tasks. Prospective goals, for example, are often difficult to remember (e.g., remembering to take your medication or remembering to put the garbage cans out). Stickgold found that the consolidation process of strengthening important memories conducted during sleep actually improved the likelihood that these goals will be remembered and acted upon.
So what’s the takeaway for our students?
This is just one more reason to emphasize the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. Students will perform better on their tests and will remember more of their daily goals if they get a reasonable amount of sleep. As teachers we can communicate this message clearly and help students manage their time so they are not working into the wee hours of the night.
- Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager