By Shelley A. Gable
As kids, many of us resisted bedtime. As adults, many of us wish we could get more sleep. For those in the midst of learning something new, a good night’s sleep can be especially beneficial.
Studies of memory consolidation and sleep
Over the past several years, sleep researchers and neuroscientists have studied a process called memory consolidation, in which our brains integrate newly learned knowledge into long-term memory. Researchers believe that REM sleep helps facilitate this process.
For example, researchers from the University of Haifa published a study in Nature Neuroscience in 2007 in which study participants who took a 90-minute nap after learning a task improved their ability to perform the task again later that day. In contrast, the participants who did not sleep did not demonstrate improved performance later in the day.
Another example, published in Nature in 2004, suggests that sleep can enhance performance in creative problem solving. Researchers from the University of Lübeck
in Germany trained subjects how to solve a math problem using a tedious method. Subjects practiced solving problems during the initial training session and again in another session 12 hours later.
But there’s a twist: there was actually a much easier way to solve the problem, which the researchers did not teach to the participants. In the study, 59% of participants who got a night’s sleep between the sessions figured out the simpler method. Only 23% of participants without sleep between the two sessions figured it out.
And there’s more! The November/December issue of Scientific American Mind has a special report that cites several studies about how sleep can help us remember and solve problems. It even suggests that we can train our dreams to help us creatively solve problems!
How can we use this knowledge to benefit training?
Let learners sleep on it.
If learners must complete an eight-hour training session, consider spreading the training out over two days (maybe more) rather than making a full day of it. This can benefit attention spans, too. If all or part of the training is eLearning, you may have the ability to accomplish this more flexibly.
We know that repeated practice benefits learning. Consider designing a course in which some of the practice occurs the next day. You could have learners complete eLearning with a case study today, and then practice those same skills with another case study exercise tomorrow.
You could even test the sleep theory out yourself, by having some learners complete additional practice scenarios the same day as the rest of training while others complete the additional scenarios the next day, and then compare the performance of the two groups. Though admittedly, if the task is too simple, a significant difference between the two groups is probably unlikely.
What do you think?
Have you heard about other sleep and memory consolidation studies? Do you think it makes sense to apply the studies’ findings to how we design training?