Sleep and Academic Performance

Sleep is necessary for memory retention, cognitive function, and focus, all important factors for successful academic performance. The brain requires a nightly “refresh” to make new memories necessary for learning. 

Tens of thousands of thoughts pass through the mind every day, but fact-based details are separated into the hippocampus for safekeeping.Think of the hippocampus like a short-term storage space. When it reaches capacity, memories begin to overwrite the others, causing forgetfulness. That’s where the power of sleep comes in. Sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker, PhD, tested a theory of how daytime napping helped with learning retention. A group of young adults in good health were separated into two groups: nappers and non-nappers. After both groups underwent a rigorous learning session, the first group took a 90-minute nap, while the other stayed awake. 

Later in the evening, another learning session was held, and it was established that the napping group improved their ability to memorize facts. This resulted in a 20 percent learning advantage over the group that did not get any sleep. The study was repeated for nighttime sleeping with similar results. In short, the study demonstrated how lack of sleep blocks the retention of cumulative learning, a hindrance on academic performance. 

Another study published by the Science of Learning Institute found that university students scored higher on quizzes and midterm exams when there was greater continuity and quality of sleep. Nonetheless, one of the biggest challenges among students, particularly in college, is that a typical lifestyle doesn’t exactly include great sleep on a consistent basis. . Factors like early morning classes, late nights out, increased alcohol consumption, and an irregular schedule all prevent students from getting the quality and quantity of sleep needed to support positive academic performance. 

Reported studies have shown that establishing later start times in school result in favorable outcomes, including higher grades and test scores, less daytime sleepiness, fewer absences and tardiness, and improvement in attention and concentration levels. One report published in the Journal of School Health specifically showed delaying the school start time by just one hour resulted in a 2 to 3 percent increase in standardized test scores with 25percent fewer absences. 

With a common theme of all studies indicating the connection between sleep and academic performance, what can students do to improve their sleep hygiene and implement habits they can take into adulthood? 

Sleep Solutions for Students to Improve Learning Levels

Making sleep a priority can be challenging for students who are dealing with a variety of environmental factors and stress. Between the pressure to get good grades and adjusting to changes through both high school and college, there are other things that largely take precedence over getting a good night’s sleep. Improving sleep habits is something students have control over, if they follow healthy sleep tips to regularly get a good night’s sleep. 

Turn Off Electronics Before Bed

Since 71 percent of people either sleep holding their smartphone or have it placed next to them on their nightstand, turning off the online connection at night is one of the most challenging ways to promote better sleep. However, eliminating or at least reducing the use of electronics a few hours before bed promotes the production of melatonin and allows the brain to restore itself overnight. 

Digital devices emit blue light, but exactly why is blue light bad? Overexposure to blue light causes the brain to feel stimulated and stay awake for longer, making it tougher to fall asleep. Also, the constant connection raises the level of anxiety and an overload of information for the brain. This leads to reduced memory retention and reaction time, as well as feelings of fatigue the next day. 

Technology has enabled people to be connected 24/7, but reducing screen time by even a few hours can restore the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and boost daily performance. While it’s not always possible to have a full digital detox, there are ways to limit use throughout the day and especially at night. 

Schedule Naps as a Pick-Me-Up Over Caffeine

Students often turn to a quick boost of caffeine from coffee or energy drinks to avoid daytime sleepiness and stay up later at night. This reliance makes it difficult to fall asleep at night, plus these drinks often contain sugar, which can result in an energy rush followed by a significant energy crash. 

Scheduling a 20- to 30-minute nap is a better strategy to feel refreshed if you’re facing a long day of school and/or work. The only caveat is to refrain from snoozing too late in the day, since that too can be a hindrance on quality sleep. A timed nap allows the brain to benefit from the first stage of sleep without going through the entire sleep cycle, which can make you wake up feeling groggy and sluggish. So set a timer and be sure not to snooze past it.

Exercise on a Regular Basis

Physical activity raises body temperature with a cooldown period afterward that triggers sleepiness. Although the recommended daily amount of exercise is 20-30 minutes of moderate activity, even 10 minutes of walking can improve sleep hygiene. Exercise also helps to alleviate stress and anxiety, two conditions that are detrimental to good sleep. 

According to a 2018 National College Assessment, 70% of teens cited anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers, and “overwhelming anxiety” has been the chief complaint among college students as noted by the Chronicle of Higher Education for seven consecutive years. Regular symptoms include panic attacks, headaches, and fatigue, all of which affect academic performance.

Track Sleep Habits

Recording daily sleep habits illustrates areas where sleep habits can be improved. While this can be recorded manually, the Eight Sleep Pod and Smart Bed provide users with a sleep fitness score that measures all of the factors affecting your sleep. This personalized, daily analysis gives you information that pinpoints patterns which require change, and teaches you how to build better habits.

Certain circumstances affect regular sleep patterns, but anticipating irregularities can help students better prepare and hopefully, largely avoid sleep disruptions. Often students begin a cycle of staying up later during the school week and “making up” for sleep on the weekends by sleeping in. This disrupts the sleep-wake cycle. Staying on track with a set sleep schedule is optimal in order to maintain adequate amounts of sleep.

Why Aren’t Students Getting Adequate Sleep?

Recent research from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine confirms that getting enough sleep is essential to academic success. Changes in sleep patterns, such as all-nighters, part-time work commitments, and increased screen time near bedtime all can lead to a negative association of sleep and academic performance. 

Unfortunately, the increased use of smartphones has decreased the hours of sleep received per night. This sleep deprivation has caused shorter attention spans, less cognitive functioning, and decreased proficiency in reading. UCLA research determined that biologically, teens have a tendency to go to sleep as much as two hours later than adults. Combined with late-night activities, such as texting or scrolling through social media, this disrupts the circadian rhythm. 

Additionally, Harvard Medical School instructor and medical director of Sleep HealthCenters, Dr. Lawrence Epstein, MD, concludes that students who get less than six hours or less per night for two weeks perform as poorly as a person who’s gone without sleep for 48 hours straight. Students getting adequate sleep perform better on motor and memory tasks than those without. As a response to students’ mental health and physical needs, schools have begun stressing the benefits of optimal sleep. 

Changing Sleep Behaviors to Promote Successful Academic Performance

Lack of memory retention, cognitive function, and focus are only three of the many effects of sleep habits on making the grade. While there are lifestyle changes as a person goes through their high school and college years that make prioritizing sleep challenging, there are preventative and proactive methods of care to ensure a good night’s sleep on a consistent basis. 

By taking into account the common culprits that are causing poor sleep and changing their sleeping habits for the better, students can expect improvements in their academic performance. Establishing and maintaining positive sleep habits will continue to prove beneficial post-graduation as part of a comprehensive wellness plan.

Sources: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (Walker, 2017);;;;;;;

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