• Rikki Lee

Wake Up to Better Learning


Let’s say you’re staying up late, racing against a deadline to put the finishing touches on the slides for an online course you developed. You’re resigned not to sleep that night. As you’re working, you think you’re doing your best—although you’re actually not doing good at all. Your wakefulness is filling you with mania, exhaustion and absent-minded activity, triple-checking what you’ve already double-checked. And you’re setting yourself up for a tiresome, wobbly next day.

When you finally upload that project to the shared folder, it’s likely your manager or client will kick it right back to you, pointing out mistakes you never caught—some of which you added yourself without realizing. Why? Your usual mental dexterity got significantly trashed because you weren’t sleeping.

A few weeks later, several learners who enroll in the course spent the previous night partying at the club. Sitting at their desks, they’re not paying attention to the slides you built. Feeling drained and hung over, they aren’t learning anything. They can’t spend more than a few seconds at a time concentrating. They could be nodding off, their awareness gutted because they didn’t get enough Z’s.

If they don’t fail the exam from too many incorrect answers, they’ll probably stop in the middle of a slide, exit the course and ease into something that doesn’t require much brain power. In contrast, the learners who slept the night before are well-rested, so they have a good chance of completing the course successfully and gaining some important knowledge.

Your body on sleep

The point of these examples is to spotlight the importance of regular sleep, not just for yourself but also for your learners. But why do we need so much, about eight out of every 24 hours? Wouldn’t some of that time be better spent doing something more meaningful like working on a project or more enjoyable like streaming some Netflix? Nope.

We usually experience an uninterrupted eight to 10 hours when we’re young. But when we are in our 20s and have no one to enforce a strict bedtime, we try to get by without the recommended seven to nine hours each night. We cheat by adding an hour or two of staying awake, primarily for viewing our screens. This becomes a matter of pride when we tell others we can get by with only four to five hours a night. But that’s an example of the expression “pride comes before a fall,” and it can lead to an illness or a chronic condition. It’s only when we reach our 50s that we regret our bad sleeping habits and turn off the lights at the same time each night.

Getting enough shuteye is physically beneficial, for the purpose of letting the body rest, repair and not work all the time. Among other things:

  • Sleep helps maintain our immune system and produce antibodies, which fight infections (including colds, flu, pneumonia and the coronavirus). Based on recent research, sufficient slumber in the days before an inoculation makes the vaccine more effective.

  • Sleep slows the release of cortisol, a stress hormone linked to heart attacks and high blood pressure.

  • Sleep slows the production of glucose (thus, reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes) and the gastrointestinal hormone ghrelin (which increases hunger and weight gain).

  • Sleep strengthens equilibrium by decreasing dizziness and the chances of an actual fall (not necessarily the kind that comes after pride).

On the other hand, frequent lack of sleep is known to weaken reflexes, cause psychological disorders like paranoia and depression, lower the libido, increase substance abuse, and shorten lifespan. So, when we skip sleep too often, our bodies and lives suffer.

Your brain on sleep Sleep is also a major factor in keeping a healthy brain: It helps maintain our own ability to think and remember properly. Our learners keep their ability to learn and apply new knowledge. But when we’re awake all night, our brain functions decelerate. We can’t pay attention as long, remember as much, or make learning-based decisions as effectively.

Memories are formed in the hippocampus, the brain’s center of learning. Without sufficient rest, the brain doesn’t quickly connect as many neurons as possible within this area for learning. Also, our brain requires sleep so that it can integrate what it learned earlier in the day and be refreshed for the next day.

But alas, if the solution were only as simple as saying, “Just get your forty winks”! The fact is that life interferes. We might be so overwrought by the day’s events when we hit the pillow that our brain can’t settle down. Or we might rely on an over-the-counter or prescription remedy, but we’ve become tolerant to it and can’t enter dreamland as quickly. Or we might have too much work to do and stay up to finish it. Or we take in a late-night ballgame that goes into extra innings. Or a new baby arrives. Or a million other things happen.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to assume at least several learners haven’t slept well the night before, so they may not be able to get the most knowledge from the course or remember it for long after. Oh, sure, they might think they’ll do fine, but even an ace instructional designer can’t test their ability to stay focused through the duration of the course.

So, as you plan your elearning design, include a few items to help those heavy-lidded learners, such as:

  1. Cautioning in the introduction of the course that they’ll need to spend time focusing on the material, and that they shouldn’t proceed if they’re not well-rested.

  2. Making each module shorter, usually lasting no more than a half-hour of seat time.

  3. Adding frequent mentions of important points, including in the module introduction, before every new section and in the module summary.

  4. Featuring regular knowledge checks and scenarios. These should require a certain amount of thinking, but don’t make them too taxing.

With the right ID approach, you can help learners get more out of their learning experience—no matter how or where they spent the previous night.

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