Learning with eyes closed

We’ve all found ourselves in the following scenario at some point in our college career: a night dedicated to studying for a massive exam the next morning. I remember one in particular during my freshman year at Gardner-Webb University. I was an athletic training major, impressionable, fearing failure, and less-than-confident in my ability to answer questions about chapters 1-3 in William E. Prentice’s Principles of Athletic Training. Last I checked, the text was in its 17th (yep) edition.

So, I did what most panicking freshman do. I pulled an all-nighter. It started out as a group study session, but I soon saw that spiraling into utter chaos and found myself alone with my textbook, highlighter, and class notes, ready and willing to review for as long as I needed. And I did. All night long, I read and re-read my materials until it was time to go to class where I failed the exam. Miserably. There are many events that create existential crises in the minds of freshmen. The pointless all-nighter that ended with an F was one of mine. I’m not cut out for this. I can’t do it. Maybe my dad will take me back on his bricklaying crew.

Fortunately, I didn’t give up and was able to make meaning from my experience: if I’m going to fail a test, I’m going to fail with a good night’s sleep.

Learning with eyes closed–that’s what Benedict Carey calls sleep in How We Learn. It’s not entirely clear what happens while we are sleeping, but researchers are becoming more and more certain that the “lights on but nobody’s home” perspective is inaccurate. Some sort of information consolidating process is at work while we’re snoozing that seems to be essential to our ability to understand our experiences. It’s more than simply taking a break, too. I’ve been prone to think of sleep kind of like a water break during exercise: you rest so you can go. But my problem–which my freshman experience taught me–is my understanding of “rest.” Rest is more than not-acting; it’s . . . well, learning with eyes closed.

I’m blogging this memory because it’s important to remind students that cramming, especially the kind that truncates sleep to mere inactivity, is more than simply unhealthy or unsustainable. It’s depriving the mind of learning. Students need to know that facing an exam well-rested is more important than one last review of the notes. Take it from someone who makes sure to get (some) rest and hasn’t failed an exam since last century.

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