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A Time for Learning

Ammons, Booker, and Killmon (1995) investigated how instruction at a particular time during the day affects the academic achievement of a general population of elementary learners. First, educators taught science lessons in the morning and then during the afternoon. Later, they conducted assessments based on the lessons.

Although the researchers found that the time of day does play a significant role in learner achievement, not all learners performed best at a specific time during the day. Instead, when learners were taught at times that matched their preference, they scored significantly higher on lesson-related assessments. This correlation was particularly strong in the case of learners whose preferred time of learning was the afternoon.

In addition, the study showed that learners scored better, on average, when they were taught during their educator's preferred time of the day. Therefore, this study proved that educators should consider the time of day when they plan and implement lessons.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the ability to learn is affected by the timing of sleep. Researchers have found that how soon we sleep after learning new information impacts how well we retain it. Payne, Tucker, Ellenbogen, Wamsley, Walker, et al. (2012) conducted research on 200 participants who had to memorize related words like "fire and smoke," or unrelated word pairs like "insect and truth."

Some subjects studied the words at 9 A.M., while others were asked to study the words at 9 P.M. The researchers then tested the subjects' ability to remember the pairs of words at intervals of 30 minutes, 12 hours, and 24 hours.

The findings were astonishing. Although sleep had little effect on the ability to recall related words, participants who slept between tests were significantly better at remembering the unrelated words than those who did not sleep. Even more interesting, during the 24-hour retest (all subjects had a full night of sleep), those participants who went to bed shortly after learning the words did significantly better than those who went through an entire day before sleeping. Even after subsequent days, the memory was maintained.

Current brain-based learning discussions also note the importance of sleep. From a purely scientific point of view, sleep is necessary for the brain to process the day's events and build complex memories. During the day, memories are formed from structural changes between neurons. These processes occur within seconds. However, the actual transformation of a memory is an on-going process.

According to J. Payne and E. Kensinger in an article published in the Association for Psychological Science, sleep also seems to reorganize memories, pick out the emotional details, and reconfigure the memories to help you produce new and creative ideas. Science Daily summarizes the article as follows:

"Sleep is making memories stronger," says Jessica D. Payne of the University of Notre Dame, who co-wrote the review with Elizabeth A. Kensinger of Boston College. "It also seems to be doing something which I think is so much more interesting, and that is reorganizing and restructuring memories."

Payne and Kensinger study what happens to memories during sleep, and they have found that a person tends to hang on to the most emotional part of a memory. For example, if someone is shown a scene with an emotional object, such as a wrecked car, in the foreground, they're more likely to remember the emotional object than, say, the palm trees in the background - particularly if they're tested after a night of sleep. They have also measured brain activity during sleep and found that regions of the brain involved with emotion and memory consolidation are active.

"In our fast-paced society, one of the first things to go is our sleep," Payne says. "I think that's based on a profound misunderstanding that the sleeping brain isn't doing anything." The brain is busy. It's not just consolidating memories, it's organizing them and picking out the most salient information. She thinks this is what makes it possible for people to come up with creative, new ideas.

Payne has taken the research to heart. "I give myself an eight-hour sleep opportunity every night. I never used to do that - until I started seeing my data," she says. People who say they'll sleep when they're dead are sacrificing their ability to have good thoughts now, she says. "We can get away with less sleep, but it has a profound effect on our cognitive abilities."