It turns out that the sleeping brain plays a large role in how long-term memories are formed. While we sleep, the brain pushes information that we learned that day from our short-term memory into our long-term memory. It's when we sleep that our brain adds the day's learning onto existing schemas, and physically builds and strengthens neural pathways.
It also does a little housecleaning. Every day, we take in thousands of bits of information and it is during sleep that our brain chooses which of those bits is worthy of being retained. It even revisits items already in long-term memory and deletes the information that has not been activated in a while.
The animated movie Inside Out does a great job of depicting this process. While Riley is sleeping, the minion-like workers in her brain decide to vacuum out most of the names of the U.S. presidents.
So how can we use sleep to enhance our learning events? Flip the classroom and use blended learning.
I now have learners do some pre-learning a few days prior, then we take a deeper dive in the classroom through hands-on application. I extend their learning with post-event opportunities and resources. For example, when I design leadership training, learners are asked to watch a corresponding online course at lynda.com. They can do this at their own pace and it frees me up from teaching some of that content so that I can use our in-person time for more focused work.
When we come together, we do in-depth hands-on practice of the skills I want them to use. And after the event, I provide them with additional learning materials such as links to TED Talks, articles, and assignments to further hone their skills.
This blended approach allows me to create three retrievals spaced with sleep, and it also starts to build the habits of the behaviors I am trying to cultivate.