Study: Naps can help students learn

BY HOLLY HINES | MARCH 09, 2010 7:30 AM

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UI freshman Dani Neef never went to bed on Sunday night. Instead, she stayed awake preparing for the five tests and one paper she faced during midterms week.

“I’m not as alert as I’d like to be,” the pre-business major said, leaning over her entrepreneurship notes.

She plans to take naps this week, Neef said, and she prefers 20-minute power naps to longer ones. She said it was easier to learn information after a nap, even a short one.

Karla McGregor, a UI professor of communication sciences and disorders, said she plans to look into the ways napping can help students learn and remember information.

She and other researchers recently submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health for roughly $135,000 to fund the research. They’ll find out whether they will get the money over the summer, and they could start the research next fall.

They want to find out whether naps have the same benefits as a full night’s sleep.

Traditionally, researchers have thought naps shorter than 90-minutes don’t produce enhanced learning because the brain doesn’t have time to enter the deepest stage of sleep, said Mark Dyken, a UI associate professor of neurology.

Results of a recent study have already concluded 90 minutes can produce results.

According to still-unreleased research conducted by Matthew Walker, a University of California-Berkeley professor, study participants who took a 90-minute nap showed a roughly 10 percent greater learning capacity than those who didn’t sleep.

During a 90-minute nap, the brain clears out short-term memories, making room for new information, according to a press-release previewing the results.

McGregor also noted shorter periods of sleep likely enhance declarative memory — the type the brain uses to learn new facts — more than procedural memory, which the brain uses to complete step-by-step tasks.

Simply being less tired is an obvious benefit of naps. But researchers are trying to separate that from better memory consolidation, or the ability to retain information.

McGregor said she recommends students studying for midterms opt to get a few hours of sleep rather than staying up all night to study.

People are most likely to feel sleepy between 1 and 3 p.m. and between 1 and 3 a.m., Dyken said, and researchers are unclear about whether the time of day during which ones sleep affects the quality of sleep.

UI freshman Stephanie Yoder, agreed that taking naps helps her learn information.

“You come back and study, and you feel more refreshed,” she said. She plans on taking “power naps” to help her get through the week.

She feels better able to memorize facts after taking a short nap, she said, and sleeping longer than a couple hours leaves her feeling tired rather than energized.

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