Baylor Researchers Share Sleep and Memory Recall Tips to Help Tackle College Finals

Baylor Researchers Share Sleep and Memory Recall Tips to Help Tackle College Finals

May 7, 20194 min read

It’s final exam season for college students across the country. And final exams often come with all-night study sessions and gallons of coffee. But do such things really help?

In recent years, Baylor University researchers have identified a few practices that could help students get enough sleep and retain information for their exams.

Here are some tips pulled from their research.

Say No to All-Nighters

Poor sleep during finals is common as students sacrifice bedtime for study time. Students are under more stress, use more caffeine to stay awake and are exposed to more bright light. Fewer than 10 percent of undergraduates maintain the recommended average of 8 hours per night of sleep or even the recommended minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night.

Baylor researchers Michael Scullin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences and director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, and Elise King, M.I.D., M.A., assistant professor of interior design in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences teamed together to find out if more sleep equaled better success.

Their December 2018 study found that students who succeeded in averaging eight hours of sleep for five nights during final exams week did better than those who did not. Sleeping for eight hours was associated with a four-point grade boost.

“Better sleep helped rather than harmed final exam performance, which is contrary to most college students’ perceptions that they have to sacrifice either studying or sleeping. And you don’t have to be an ‘A’ student or have detailed education on sleep for this to work,” Scullin said.

King said students know that sacrificing sleep to complete school work is not a healthy choice, but they assume they don't have a choice, often remarking that there aren't enough hours in the day for coursework, extracurriculars, jobs, etc.

“This removes that excuse,” King said.

Sleep Consistency is Key

In a study of sleep and creativity done in 2017, King and Scullin found that interior design students with highly variable sleep habits — cycling between “all-nighters” and “catch-up” nights — had decreased cognition in attention and creativity, especially with major projects.

“Whether or not they ‘pull an all-nighter,’ when students cut their sleep, the effects are obvious,” King said. “They have trouble paying attention during class, and they aren't as productive during studio time.”

To be successful at the challenge, students need to manage their time better during the day. Getting more sleep at night then allows them to be more efficient the next day.

“By training students in their first year of college, if not earlier, that they can sleep well during finals week without sacrificing performance, we may help to resolve the ‘global sleep epidemic’ that plagues students in America and abroad,” Scullin said.

Looking for Better Recall? Tell a Friend What You Learned

Students who are given information and tell someone about it immediately recall the details better and longer, according to a 2017 study led by Baylor psychologist Melanie Sekeres, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

She said this “replaying” method takes a lot of effort but is worth it in the long run.

“A week later, the memory was just as good,” Sekeres said. “Telling someone else about what you’ve learned is a really effective way for students to study instead of just re-reading the textbook or class notes.”

In the study, students were shown 24-second clips from 40 films over a period of about half an hour. The study focused on their retention of both the general plot of the films as well as such details as sounds, colors, gestures, background details and other peripheral information that allow a person to re-experience an event in rich and vivid detail, said Sekeres.

“We tell students to test yourself, force yourself to tell someone about the lecture,” Sekeres said. “Even by writing out some question for yourself about the information, then later answering them yourself, you are more likely to remember the information. Unfortunately, simply re-reading or passively listening to a recording of your lecture in hopes of remembering the information isn’t a great study strategy by comparison.”


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

Connect with:
  • Elise  King, MID, M.A.
    Elise King, MID, M.A. Assistant Professor in Family and Consumer Sciences | Interior Design

    Elise King, MID, M.A., is an Assistant Professor in Interior Design at Baylor University.

  • Michael Scullin, Ph.D.
    Michael Scullin, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

    Professor Scullin’s research investigates how sleep physiology impacts memory, education, health, and aging.

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