Home > Education, Memory > ATTENTION: Tips for Finals Week!

ATTENTION: Tips for Finals Week!

Finals week…both a blessing and a curse. First, you think: “YES! This semester is almost over!” But, then you realize final exams, papers, and projects are still ahead. Awesome. Right after loudness is usually when sleep starts to lose importance and studying takes over. Breaks include Dunkin, Cap’n Crunch at Dana, and funny cat videos. Your bed sees less and less of you as all-nighters and power naps become your routine. This may be a bit exaggerated, but we all know the truth: finals are crazy and exhausting. Climbing into bed is not just the solution for these problems—sleep will also help you remember what you studied! Unbelievable right? The Zzzquil commercials are not lying when they say “Sleep is a beautiful thing.” To prove it to you, I will explain an experiment by Payne et al. (2012) in which sleep benefits were found.

This experiment was done with healthy Harvard students, so you might be able to assume that they were almost as smart and dedicated as your average Colby student. That said, the experimenters tested these students on their knowledge of semantically related and unrelated word pairs. An example of a related word pair would be HAPPY- GLAD, while an unrelated word pair would be HAPPY- EXAM. The other aspect of the experiment, which includes studying the importance of sleep, is broken up into two parts: training and testing.

Training involved participants viewing 40 word pairs and then accurately learning 60% of the words as judged by a computer training program. This would mean that out of the 40 word pairs, a participant would have to identify 24 pairs correctly to complete training. Identification of word pairs was the training method in which participants were shown the first word of the pair and had to respond with the second word. If they responded with the wrong word, the correct word was shown. Half of the participants underwent training at 9am, and the other half trained at 9pm.

After participants learned 24 out of 40 word pairs, they had to undergo the pair identification testing again. The final testing occurred either 30 minutes, 12 hours, or 24 hours from completion of training. Participants now had only one chance per pair to respond with the second word, and their performance was measured by the number of word pairs remembered accurately. I have included an abbreviated timeline to show all of the conditions in a visual manner. The important thing to note is if and when participants in each condition were able to sleep prior to testing, as the data will show which train-test interval produced the best results.


When Payne et al. (2012) reviewed the training and testing data, they did not find any differences between the groups who trained at 9am or 9pm and tested 30 minutes later. However, participants who trained at 9pm and tested 12 hours later performed better than those who trained at 9am and tested 12 hours later. This difference in performance was related to the night of sleep in between training and testing for the 9pm training group. Also, the unrelated word pairs, such as HAPPY- EXAM, were poorly remembered by the participants who were awake during the 12 hour train-test interval when compared to those who slept during the 12 hours. Finally, those participants who trained at 9pm and tested 24 hours later performed much better than those who trained at 9am and tested 24 hours later. The benefit for performance was noted here only when sleep occurred directly after training.

Payne et al. (2012) were also able to examine the amount of forgetting that occurred during waking hours over the 24 hour test interval by comparing this data to that of the participants in the 12 hour train-test interval. For the participants who trained at 9am and tested 24 hours later, there was double the amount of forgetting of unrelated word pairs and over three times the amount of forgetting of related word pairs compared to participants who trained at 9pm and tested 24 hours later. Payne et al. (2012) attributed this to the sleep that occurred right after training, and they suggested that sleep slowed the process of forgetting more for the participants who trained at 9pm and tested 24 hours later.

A crucial point to take away from this experiment is that those who slept after training did better in testing than those who did not sleep. This is pretty strong evidence to support the following suggestion: “Don’t pull all-nighters!” The experiment also showed that those who slept immediately after training tested better than those who were awake. This would mean that it might be a good idea to study before going to bed, rather than only in the morning before an exam. Just some food for thought with dreaded finals week quickly approaching. Good luck and sleep tight!


Payne, J.D., Tucker, M.A., Ellenbogen, J.M., Wamsley, E.J., Walker, M.P., Schacter, D.L., et al. (2012). Memory for semantically related and unrelated declarative information: The benefit of sleep, the cost of wake. PLoS ONE, 7(3), e33079. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033079

Link- “Memory for semantically related and unrelated declarative information: The benefit of sleep, the cost of wake”


  1. mjhunsic
    November 25th, 2013 at 10:38 | #1

    This is interesting because for many people, studying at night when they are tired doesn’t allow them to attend and focus to information as effectively as they can when they are fresh after a night of sleep. It makes sense that sleep might reduce the among of forgetting, but I wonder how this data stands for students who identify as morning people and go to bed early because at 9 oclock they are too tired to focus on work…

  2. November 30th, 2013 at 17:35 | #2

    As the previous comment touched upon, I also wonder how people who claim to be more aware and efficient in the mornings, known as “morning people,” and those who claim to be more aware and efficient in the evenings would play into the results of this study. As one who works more efficiently earlier in the day, this may have been an interesting detail to obtain from the participants before undergoing the training.

  3. aspencer
    December 2nd, 2013 at 21:28 | #3

    After reading your post, I was curious to how sleep was helping people to process information. Is sleeping after night studying a way of preventing retroactive interference throughout the day? It would be interesting to have information on what people were doing during their day. If people were studying other things during the day it might have a more negative effect than if the student went for a hike and was not trying to process too much material in a day.

  4. December 3rd, 2013 at 17:12 | #4

    After reading this I will never stay up all night to study! The result that Payne found really does make sense because if you go to sleep right after learning something you are not giving your attention to something else. If you’re sleeping you are not making any new memories or taking in any new information that would interfere with what you have just learned. This does leave me with some questions though. Would the amount of sleep a person got affect their performance? Does how tired the person was while studying matter? I would also like to know if the subject that is being studied matters.

  5. December 9th, 2013 at 15:29 | #5

    I would imagine that the amount of sleep might matter less than the “type” of sleep – whether one gets into deep sleep or not. But clearly, learning about how generalizable the results are is important.

  6. May 1st, 2014 at 15:45 | #6

    I found this post interesting for two reasons. First, I think the importance of sleep between studying and testing coincides with the importance of spacing while learning information. Studies have shown that students who space their studying, or study with breaks between study sessions, perform better in the long run on exams. A positive effect of this form of studying could be that students get more sleep because they don’t have to put in long cramming hours and have “all-nighters” when studying. The second reason I think this is interesting is because many high schools are now considering starting the school day an hour or so later than before. Although this seems beneficial, they additionally plan on extending the school day an hour as well, counteracting the idea of starting later. I think it is important for high schools, as well as academic institutions of higher levels, to consider the importance of sleep in a student’s performance when planning the school day, homework, and exams.

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