Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Naps and learning competencies

I have written before about research that clearly demonstrates improved learning after sleep. Sleep promotes the "consolidation" of recently acquired short-term memories into more permanent memories.  Impaired consolidation is a major problem in teaching and learning. Teachers often have to repeat the same instruction again and again, and yet many children still do not perform well on high-stakes tests. Anything teachers can do to improve retention of instruction would be useful, and that includes making school children aware that they probably need to get more sleep. The well-known change in sleep cycles during adolescence makes a strong case for starting school later in the morning. But another issue is whether or not naps during the school day would improve learning.

A recent study in Brazilian schools has addressed this question by having 371 6th graders take a nap after receiving a 15-minute lecture on intentionally novel information that was not relevant to the normal curriculum. Students were then given a surprise multiple-choice test on this content at three different times after the lecture: 1, 2, and 5 days after the lecture.  Scores were compared with that of a pre-test on this material before the lecture.

Students were divided into a nap group, in which students were given sleep masks and encouraged to try to sleep, lying down on mats in a quiet room. The other group went to a regular class by their usual teacher after the lecture.

Not surprisingly, both groups showed improved scores (12% gain) when tested the next day. However, this gain disappeared by five days in the non-nap group, whereas essentially no decline in test scores was evident at testing two or five days later. Teachers would not be surprised that students soon forgot what they are taught. In this situation, the preserved memory in the nap group was especially impressive, given that the study was designed to impair learning in both nap and non-nap groups in four ways:

1.      Students were not allowed to take notes.
2.      Students were not encouraged to remember this information.
3.      The lecture topic was not relevant to the curriculum.
4.      Students did not know they were going to be tested.

If these constraints on learning had not been present, I suspect that the nap effect would have been much larger. Moreover, there was no objective measure of how much actual sleep each student had. Many might have just been resting. Data were not tracked by individual student, but rather averaged over the whole group. Finally, multiple-choice tests were used, and these only test recognition memory. If naps do improve memory, a larger nap effect might be seen with tests that call for students to generate a remembered answer, as in short answer or fill-in-the blanks tests.

While theory and experiments such as this suggest that napping could help student learning, there are of course practical constraints. Time spent napping is time that content cannot be presented.

My experience as an educational consultant in schools is that schools seem to conspire to make learning difficult. First, students are constantly over-stimulated and distracted, not only by social interactions, but by posters, pictures, and do-dads placed conspicuously all over the rooms and in the halls. Many teachers allow students to multi-task, for example, using cell and smart phones in class. Classes are commonly disturbed by loud public-speaker announcements from the principal's office and by loud bells signaling the end of class. Immediately after class, no quiet time is allowed for reflection on what happened in class. Students actually start tuning out about five minutes before the anticipated bell ring, and the bell causes them to leap up, run out into the halls, and start socializing. Then, of course, there is the emphasis on all manner of extracurricular activities that occupy the minds of many students much more than curriculum. It's a wonder students learn anything.

Finally, few if any teachers teach students how to learn. The emphasis is on what to learn and on performing well on state-mandated test scores. I have started to give teacher workshops to help teachers realize the importance of developing learning competence in their students. If students had better learning skills, the job of teaching would be much easier and student test performance would improve automatically.


Lemos, N. et al. (2014). Naps in school can enhance the duration of declarative memories learned by adolescents. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. Vol. 8, article 103. Doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00103

Dr. Klemm is author of two books on learning and memory, Memory Power 101 and Better Grades, Less Effort.