Sleep is Critical for Successful Long-term LearningA good night’s rest could be the key to learning new information, finds a study from Royal Holloway, University of London. The research team found that people learning new words were best able to apply what they had learned after a night of sleep. The results suggest that successful long-term learning does not occur until after the brain rests. The study underscores the importance of sleep for learning and offers insights for educators.

The researchers taught vocabulary words from a fictional language to a group of people. The words of the fictional language were linked by a rule. The researchers did not explicitly explain the rule, but left it for the participants to figure out. For some students, they introduced exceptions to the rule in later lessons. For other students, they introduced exceptions to the rule in the same lesson as vocabulary that followed the rule.

The participants worked out the rule shortly after learning it, but the findings demonstrate that they were not immediately able to apply the rule. Participants were not able to apply the rule to new words until after a rest period. This suggests that sleep is critical for consolidating new learning.

Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Royal Holloway Kathy Rastle explained the results. “Teachers have long suspected that proper rest is critical for successful learning. Our research provides some experimental support for this notion. Participants in our experiments were unable to identify the hidden rule shortly after learning. However, it was not until they were tested a week after training that participants were able to use that rule to understand a totally new word from the fictional language when it was presented in a sentence.”

When the researchers introduced the exceptions to the rule in the first lesson, the participants were not able to figure the rule out for themselves.

The findings have important implications for classroom learning. The results suggest that sleep is a critical part of the learning process. For educators, the results indicate that, when teaching a rule, they should wait to tell students about exceptions. Allowing students to first grasp general patterns before introducing exceptions leads to a stronger understanding of the material.

This research is published in the journal Cognitive Psychology.

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