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Sleep. 2016 Sep 1;39(9):1681-90. doi: 10.5665/sleep.6092.

Sleep Restriction Impairs Vocabulary Learning when Adolescents Cram for Exams: The Need for Sleep Study.

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Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Disorders, Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore.
Department of Physiology, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, Singapore.



The ability to recall facts is improved when learning takes place at spaced intervals, or when sleep follows shortly after learning. However, many students cram for exams and trade sleep for other activities. The aim of this study was to examine the interaction of study spacing and time in bed (TIB) for sleep on vocabulary learning in adolescents.


In the Need for Sleep Study, which used a parallel-group design, 56 adolescents aged 15-19 years were randomly assigned to a week of either 5 h or 9 h of TIB for sleep each night as part of a 14-day protocol conducted at a boarding school. During the sleep manipulation period, participants studied 40 Graduate Record Examination (GRE)-type English words using digital flashcards. Word pairs were presented over 4 consecutive days (spaced items), or all at once during single study sessions (massed items), with total study time kept constant across conditions. Recall performance was examined 0 h, 24 h, and 120 h after all items were studied.


For all retention intervals examined, recall of massed items was impaired by a greater amount in adolescents exposed to sleep restriction. In contrast, cued recall performance on spaced items was similar between sleep groups.


Spaced learning conferred strong protection against the effects of sleep restriction on recall performance, whereas students who had insufficient sleep were more likely to forget items studied over short time intervals. These findings in adolescents demonstrate the importance of combining good study habits and good sleep habits to optimize learning outcomes.


adolescents; declarative memory; sleep; spaced learning; vocabulary learning

[Available on 2017-03-01]
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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