Another important topic regarding sleep involves the extent to which we are aware of how sleep impacts our ability to learn. For students, their number one job is to learn and progress through their education. Teens need to be prepared for the very near future where they will train for a career, enter the workforce, move into adulthood, and experience true autonomy and self-reliance. Their schooling and ability to learn sets the foundation for all of this, so with sleep being such a critical aspect of growth and development, it is important for young learners to know how sleep contributes to their ability to learn.
Because sleep promotes brain restoration—quite literally, our brain synapses that fire during our waking hours as we encounter stimuli get to take a “break” while we are asleep—disturbed, disrupted or shortened sleep means that our brains are not fully restored when we wake up. This restoration period is crucial to students’ ability to learn and function at their best. Studies indicate that over 70% of teenagers are not getting an adequate amount of sleep, which means that they go to school with an impeded ability to learn.
Since sleep allows our brains to essentially reset, students experience an increase in alertness, concentration, and “sharpness” when they are well-rested. On the contrary, these necessary attributes are compromised when sleep is lacking.
- In a math class, students lacking sleep may find that their mental math ability is not as acute; instead of being able to recall times tables, formulas, and processes quickly, they might experience a sluggish or lagged response time when approaching a problem.
- Similarly, in a foreign language course, students who are lacking sleep are less likely to be able to summon conversational vocabulary, even terms that they have encountered at a high frequency. Their ability to activate or “switch on” memory recall can be greatly compromised by even just a few nights of disturbed sleep.
- Memory processing is negatively impacted when students are not adequately rested. This means that recent skills, facts, or processes are less likely to be moved from short- term memory to long-term memory. The brain is unable to file this new information away for later use. This means that no amount of cramming the night before an exam will guarantee that that information will be accessible during the test.
Recalling information is only one facet of learning that is compromised by sleep deprivation. The ability to receive new information is negatively affected as well.
- For example, a student who is presented with a new novel, article, or lab report will be less capable of applying basic comprehension skills if sleep deprived. Not only will that student be less likely to memorize the main idea or key details in the text, but he will be unable to identify the central idea all together. Because fatigue impacts the ability to focus, students may be viewing that text, but they are not actually comprehending or assessing what they are reading.
- The same idea holds true for the writing process. A student that is lacking sleep will tend to produce writing that is unfocused, lacking critical thought, or missing key details. Their ability to catch common errors, whether misspellings, lapses in tense, grammatical missteps, and punctuation oversights could also lag due to the lack of focus.
Finally, a student’s ability to learn is compromised because the fatigue offsets motivation. When minds are foggy and focus is lacking, motivation follows suit and diminishes. Therefore, task initiation, timed exercises, and anything else that requires students to summon effort can be a real struggle.