Pulling a sweatshirt over her head, she attempts a few half-hearted brush strokes through her hair before yanking it back into a ponytail, throwing her books into her bag and walking out the door for class. A cram session the night before put her in bed around 2:30 a.m., but an 8 a.m. lecture brings her right back into the inescapable world of academics. She has a hot caffeinated beverage for breakfast, justifying her choice with the knowledge of the extra boost that will put her through the end of her lecture. As her professor speaks and she distractedly takes notes, she stifles her yawns and tells herself, I’ll make up for this tonight. I’ll get my work done and go to sleep at a decent hour. I can’t stand being this tired all the time. But classes, on top of group meetings and a shift at work, land her in the library at night, once again, tipping back a can of energy drink in between clicks on the keyboard.[grumpy]
Many students make similar promises to themselves each day, vowing to conquer those procrastination demons, get studying done during the day or resist the lure of online games or late-night television in favor of some more shut-eye. Others insist that as long as they make it through Friday on an all-too-short sleep schedule, Saturday and Sunday mornings can be used to catch up. But even the best-laid plans go astray, and promises to adapt a more healthy sleep schedule are frequently broken. Most college students are used to a hectic schedule that does not allow for consistency in the sleep spectrum, but being tired can be irritating, distracting and counterproductive. If a lack of sleep comes with so many negative consequences, why do the sleep banks of many students remain deprived?
According to the Health Education Department at Brown University, eight hours of sleep per night is ideal, but this depends on the individual’s needs and the sleep quality. According to a 2001 study by the university, 11 percent of student respondents reported good quality of sleep. Spending eight hours tossing and turning is less beneficial than fewer hours of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the highest quality sleep stage. This leaves a significant percentage of students who either don’t get enough sleep or never drift into REM sleep, a trend that likely applies to colleges across the country.
Shifts in sleep habits can be the result of a sporadic class and work schedule; students’ daily patterns probably differ from the block-like set of events typical in the working world. Instead of staying in one location for eight hours, classes are spread apart and gaps of time are filled in with work, studying or other activities. This hectic atmosphere can be a catalyst for an irregular sleep schedule. Depending on her homework load, history sophomore Amanda Dunlap prefers to nap to make up for her sleep deficit, and thinks it is considered more normal for college students to have strange sleep schedules, as opposed to full-time employees. “[Our] schedules are different from a 9-to-5 job,” said Dunlap. “Classes start at different times every day.” [sleep3]
Second-year graduate student Lia Field said her sleep schedule differs based on what she has to accomplish, but she prefers drinking coffee to taking naps as a way to stave off yawns during the day. The unstructured college lifestyle allows students to create their own sleep schedules, but these schedules can often change from day to day, she said. “I try to keep it normal, but as a graduate student, you have to make good use of all your available hours, even those that would be spent sleeping,” said Field, who is studying clinical psychology.
In between classes and studying, it is clear many of students’ waking hours revolve around academic performance; this has been a trend from the start of college. Professors encourage a high caliber of work, parents harp on their children to earn high marks and employers look at grade point averages (GPAs) to determine if a student will fit in at their companies. Research runs rampant with factors that supposedly correlate with the grades of a student – diet, amount of extra-curricular activities – and sleep has been added to this list of influences on academic performance in university students.[meadow]
A study by Brandon Peters and his colleagues (2005) measured the scores of 231 undergraduate students from the western United States (mean average age of 19 years) on the Consideration of Future Consequences scale. This measurement tool is used to assess how much the ideas of future implications can impact an individual’s decision-making process. The researchers found higher scale scores were linked to sleep regularity, fewer instances of oversleeping and higher GPAs. In other words, the students with greater “consideration of future consequences” were more likely to have consistent sleep patterns, which then related to higher grades. It may come as frustrating news to many students that irregular sleep schedules, often formed around academic demands, may actually have the opposite effect. This leaves the problem of balancing workloads from class with the need for enough sleep unresolved.
This kind of push-and-pull situation can affect the quality of sleep experienced by college students, as it can be a source of stress. Jon Kermiet, part of the Health Education Services staff at the Olin Health Center, communicates with students about sources of stress in their lives; sleep disruption tends to be a byproduct of such stress. “Stress will either cause a student to become so fixated about problems and events and things that are happening that they are just too wired to sleep…[or] some people with stress sleep too much,” said Kermiet. “For them, the stress is causing the opposite type of reaction. That can be just as disruptive.”[sleep1]
Academic stress and responsibilities can culminate into the ultimate restriction of sleep: the all-nighter. The work has piled up, the deadlines are looming and students have nowhere to go but to the library, armed with an arsenal of textbooks, notes and caffeinated products. Field has pulled some all-nighters in her college career, but she notices her functioning is affected for the next few days, in addition to her knowledge of the material. “I don’t see the point in staying up all night to learn something if you’re not going to retain it the next day,” said Field.
Addressing health issues such as sleep, the MSU Student Health Assessment is conducted twice a year by the Olin Health Center and the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) at MSU. According to the June 2006 assessment, 59.3 percent of students reported getting enough sleep to feel “rested” for four or more days per week. However, about 26 percent of students believed their sleep problems negatively influenced their academic performances. This percentage is up from 24 percent in 2004 and 23 percent in 2003, indicating a slight, but notable, trend. “Because [these students] don’t get enough sleep, their academics have suffered from…a worse grade in the class, dropping a class, [a] worse grade on a test – those types of things,” said Kermiet.[meadow2]
The survey also addressed the effects of poor sleep habits on school obligations. The students who reported getting quality sleep for six or seven nights per week were more likely to have higher GPAs, solidifying the link between academic performance and sleep quality. “I think there’s an expectation in college…that it’s natural to stay up quite late and sleep quite late if you can,” said Kermiet.
Despite this established link between grades and sleep regularity, many students would not change their sleep habits in favor of the opportunity to earn better grades, including criminal justice freshman Justin Sutton. Sutton has a consistent sleep schedule during the week; he hits the sack around midnight and rises at 7:30 a.m., due to early classes every day. To combat feelings of tiredness, Sutton takes a daily nap, instead of skipping class or other activities. Although he makes it to lecture, like many students, he can be lured back to a sub-conscious state in the classroom.
“I usually go to class, and sometimes I’ll just fall asleep,” said Sutton. “Sometimes I wake up [from naps] feeling more tired…it just depends on how long the nap is.”
[sleeper]Many students have found naps are the solution to the midday drag; many students have reverted to a childhood routine in order to get additional energy. Sleep for too long, however, and the benefits of a nap can be counteracted; the Brown department warns against naps longer than a half-hour. Kermiet said naps are an effective way to catch up on sleep, as long as an individual is not consistently in a sleep debt. But if this is happening, concentration problems and a lower immune system response, among other negative factors, can remain.
“…If you’re always behind, you might not ever catch up,” said Kermiet. “Taking naps, as long as it’s not excessive, can be quite good for a lot of people. It gives them just enough recovery so they can do what they need to do.”
In addition to effects on academic performance, including the ability to concentrate, poor sleep habits also can lead to irritability, tension and mood changes, according to the Brown health department. In order to improve sleep quality, Kermiet suggested doing something to avoid thinking about sleeping, such as taking a bath or zoning out in front of the television. While alcohol may facilitate an easy transition from a waking state to sleep, drinking can influence sleep quality and cause people to wake up frequently throughout the night…an experience with which many college students are familiar.[kermit]
The effects of poor sleep quality are clear, and many students can attest to them from personal experience. But in between stress, academic demands and packed schedules, will changing sleep habits in favor of higher quality ever be a priority for all students? It seems like quite an ever-frustrating catch-22: better sleep leads to better grades, but we have to sacrifice sleep in order to study to earn those better grades. Other obligations continue to trump the promises or desires to improve sleep, and if a student can run on four hours of sleep and fit in some extra shut-eye on the weekends, that might be the best option in order to balance a complicated schedule.
A power nap also is a popular choice.

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