Did you know that sleep is important for exam preparation? We all know how terrible we feel when we haven’t slept yet ironically, sleep is often a neglected component of exam preparation because people underestimate its importance. Human and animal studies show that both the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on our learning and memory.  

As a Performance Coach, I regularly talk to people who sacrifice their sleep to be able to study longer, thinking that staying up all hours of the night and burning the ‘midnight oil’ is a good strategy for exam success. It isn’t! In fact, it can sabotage your exam preparation! Did you know loss of sleep: 

  • can affect your levels of concentration and energy;  
  • can affect mood and increase anxiety; 
  • is associated with physical and emotional arousal (fight, flight or freeze response); 
  • affects your motivation, judgement, situational awareness, memory and alertness; and 
  • can be associated with stressful periods (yes, exam preparation is stressful), for some people, insomnia may develop and persist despite the stressful period ending? 

Can you imagine trying to study but being unable to focus or lacking the motivation to study? On top of this, imagine then struggling to remember information when testing yourself with practice questions because you haven’t been able to encode the information overnight due to poor quality sleep. If this sounds like you, it could be the amount and quality of sleep you are getting. 

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that involves dissatisfaction with the quality or quantity of your sleep. People with insomnia are concerned about initiating and/or maintaining sleep. If you experience insomnia, you may experience: 

  • difficulty falling asleep (“sleep onset insomnia”); 
  • difficulty staying asleep, with frequent and prolonged awakenings in the night (“sleep maintenance insomnia”); or 
  • early morning wakening, with inability to fall back asleep (“late insomnia”). 

It’s normal to have a few nights of poor sleep when you are going through a stressful period, like the lead up to exams. For most people, the insomnia passes once the stressful situation passes. However, there is the potential to fall into a pattern of poor sleep due to staying up late and ruminating about the exam and your preparation for it. 

Many people who have insomnia become preoccupied with their sleep and, over time, get caught up in a vicious cycle of worrying about it, which then causes more sleep difficulties. Treatment, like cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-i), will help you to break this cycle. Up to a third of our population report symptoms of insomnia and about 11% of people meet the criteria for an insomnia diagnosis. It is far more common than you might think. Insomnia results in significant economic costs to Australia through lost work productivity, increased healthcare utilisation, reduced quality of life, and it increases the risk of future depressive and anxiety disorders. Many people with insomnia also develop sleep anxiety, due to associating going to bed with not sleeping. Without treatment, insomnia commonly persists for many years. 

Sleep, learning and memory

Memories are comprised of three major processes: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. During encoding, perceptions and feelings of an event form a new memory, which is initially highly susceptible to decay (i.e., forgetting). During consolidation, the memory is gradually stabilised and strengthened, and integrated with existing memories. During retrieval, the stored memory is accessed and recalled. The knowledge (facts, information and skills acquired through experience and/or education) you need to pass your exam(s) is basically encoded and consolidated memories.  

Research has shown sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions. The link between sleep and memory retention is well established, through more than a century’s worth of research. For example, research has shown that sleep plays an active role in memory consolidation, when newly encoded memories are consolidated into our long-term memory overnight during sleep. 

Hence, quality sleep is important to enable accurate and detailed consolidation of our memories. Those who routinely obtain less than seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per 24-hour period will struggle to function optimally. When a person is mentally exhausted due to sleep deprivation, their alertness will suffer. The result of poor sleep is impaired judgement, reaction time, and situational awareness — the hallmarks of poor mental effectiveness. Further, ongoing sleep deprivation and sleep disruptions have been showed to cause severe cognitive and emotional problems.  

Tips and Strategies to optimise your sleep

  • Don’t reduce your sleep quantity or quality for extra hours of study. For example, if you wish to study in the morning before work by getting up earlier than usual (a good exam preparation strategy), go to bed earlier so the number of hours sleep you achieve doesn’t change.  
  • Understand your sleep patterns by completing a Sleep Diary
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at consistent times. 
  • If you don’t have one currently, establish a bed-time routine (e.g., a consistent routine such as a warm milky drink or a bath prior to going to bed). 
  • Optimise your sleep environment (e.g., reduce bedroom temperature, noise and light). 
  • Increase light exposure during the day. 
  • Reduce blue light exposure in the evening (e.g., phones and other screens). 
  • Don’t consume caffeine late in the day (e.g., within 8 hours of bedtime)
  • Stop or reduce alcohol intake. 
  • Stop or reduce daytime napping. 
  • Consider if taking a melatonin supplement might be right for you – see your GP to discuss. 
  • If struggling with insomnia, get support to manage it (e.g., through sleep therapy or CBT-i). 

As the Division of Sleep Medicine of the Harvard Medical School says, missing sleep in order to keep up with our 24/7 world will make us pay a price through our ability to learn, our health and safety, and our quality of life. The quantity and quality of sleep you get will have a profound impact on your learning and memory. Sleep is beneficial and therefore important. A good night’s sleep can make us feel ready to take on the world. Ensure you consider it as a part of your exam preparation strategy. 

For more information, see: 


Haycock, J., Grivell, N., Redman, A., Saini, B., Vakulin, A., Lack, L., Lovato, N., Sweetman, A., Zwar, N., Stocks, N., Frank, O., Mukherjee, S., Adams, R., McEvoy, R.D., Hoon, E. (2021). Primary care management of chronic insomnia: a qualitative analysis of the attitudes and experiences of Australian general practitioners. BMC Family Practice, 22 (1), pp1-11. 

Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School. Sleep Matters (video). Accessed 19/2/24: https://sleep.hms.harvard.edu/education-training/public-education/sleep-and-health-education-program/sleep-health-education-41  

Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About Sleep’s Role in Memory. Physiological Reviews, 93(2), 681–766 doi: 10.1152/physrev.00032.2012 found at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/ 

Sweetman, A., Zwar, N. A., Grivell, N., Lovato, N., & Lack, L. (2021). A step-by-step model for a brief behavioural treatment for insomnia in Australian general practice. Australian Journal of General Practice , 50(5), 287-293. https://doi.org/10.31128/AJGP-04-20-5391