The TEFL Life: A TEFL blog

a story about bad grammar and non-existent punctuation and my TEFL adventures

to sleep, perchance to dream: the effects of sleep on learning

Following on from yesterday’s post: the effects of sleep on learning. We know (from yesterday’s post) that cramming doesn’t have much impact on long-term learning and that it is more effective to learn or study regularly in order for the material to stick. However, the one thing cramming does have in its favour is the fact that you are likely to go to sleep straight after it.

Sleep has always been one of my favourite things and then In found out about this study and it made it even more popular in my world.

Three researchers – Fenn, Nusbaum and Margoliash – published a mouthful of a study in Nature called “Consolidation During Sleep of Perceptual Learning of Spoken Language”. They apparently got the idea for the study from figuring out how birds learn singing, which is rad and odd at the same time and I can’t see the connection but that doesn’t really matter.

This is what they did:

For their study, the team tested college students’ understanding of a series of common words produced in a mechanical, robotic way by a voice synthesizer that made the words difficult to understand. They first measured the students’ ability to recognize the words. They then trained them to recognize the words and then tested them again to measure the effectiveness of the training.

None of the students heard the same word more than once, so they had to learn how to figure out the pattern of sounds the synthesizer was making. “It is something like learning how to understand someone speaking with a foreign accent,” Nusbaum said.

The team tested three groups of students. The control group was tested one hour after they were trained, and they recognized 54 percent of the words, as opposed to the 33 percent they recognized before training.

The scientists trained the second group of students at 9 a.m. and tested them at 9 p.m., 12 hours later. During that 12-hour interval, the students had lost much of their learning and only made a 10 percentage point gain over their pre-test scores.

A third group was trained at 9 p.m., allowed a night’s sleep and then tested the next morning at 9 a.m. Those students improved their performance by 19 percentage points over their pre-test scores.

The second group was then re-tested after being allowed a night’s sleep, and their scores improved to the same level as the students in the third group.


What does this mean? When we’re awake, talking, thinking and just generally being interferes with any information we may have just learnt. While we are sleeping there is no interference so the appropriate associations are strengthened and the irrelevant matters are ignored. Sleep can even help you remember information you thought you had forgotten  (or you probably didn’t even know you had forgotten). So sleep can consolidate memories and also recover memories.

The moral of the story: study in chunks, regularly, in the evening.

Is this not the kind of useful stuff we should be learning at school?


2 comments on “to sleep, perchance to dream: the effects of sleep on learning

  1. punster30
    January 18, 2016

    I studied an MSc in York, and my supervisor was an expert in consolidation of learning through sleep. I might look into this topic again, because lots of psychology research points towards the benefits, but I’d like to see if there are theories as to the chemicals involved and what effect they actually have. I don’t know anything about biochemistry – melatonin is associated with sleep though, right? I wonder what role that might play. Anyway… interesting post, cheers

  2. Kirsten C
    January 18, 2016

    Would love to have more time to catch up on research myself, so love it when other people do it for me! Looking forward to reading more about it on your blog.

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This entry was posted on June 4, 2015 by in General TEFL and tagged , , , , , , .
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