College Students Receiving Failing Grades in Sleep

How sleep deprivation impacts success, health and happiness among college students

Sleepy college student

There are lots of things that can make a college experience challenging: passing Organic Chem, finding the right social group, eating healthy, getting into the bar with a shoddy fake ID…the list goes on. But there’s one incredibly difficult challenge during your years in university that doesn’t receive enough attention: getting enough sleep.

It’s easy to get caught up in the chaos of college life and let your sleep fall by the wayside, but you really shouldn’t. Sleep deprivation is a real issue that can have serious implications on your physical and mental health, especially to a student.

Sleep Deprivation 101

The NCBI reports that a majority of students are sleep deprived, with 70% of students sleeping less than eight hours a night, and 50% reporting daytime sleepiness.

For some schools or majors, sleep deprivation is much more severe. At one particular architecture program in the study, it was found that only 4% of students were sleeping more than seven hours a night. These students reported an average 5.7 hours of sleep a night and pulled about three all-nighters a month.

It’s not just the archies either. STEM majors appear to be hit especially hard as well, with some studies showing worse quality of sleep and increased use of sleep medication among this group compared to humanities majors and population norms.

College students have even been turning to abuse of ADHD medications like Adderall, Focalin, Ritalin and Vyvanse to stay awake during the twilight hours at an increasing rate.

Some even treat all-nighters or how little sleep they’ve gotten as a bragging right or badge of honor. But few stop to consider the actual consequences of sleep deprivation on their body and mind.

Spoiler alert: it’s really bad.

A majority of students are sleep deprived, with 70% sleeping less than eight hours a night.

Sleep and your GPA 

Tired student

Here’s a simple fact: there is a strong correlation between your sleep quality and your GPA.

A Harvard Study was recently released that showed students with irregular sleep schedules (staying up late or waking up early to study often) did worse academically than students with regular sleep schedules.

The researchers used a proprietary metric of sleep regularity that ranged from 0-100. Students who were up at odd hours working all the time had lower scores, and students with regimented bedtimes were ranked closer to 100.

The authors found that for each increase of 10 in their sleep regularity score, students saw a .1 increase in their GPA. While correlation does not imply causation, it’s hard to deny a connection between sleep and academic performance.

Sleep deprivation: the science of it all 

You’ve probably heard about the effects of sleep deprivation by now: it can cause an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, low sex drive and a host of other fairly unpleasant maladies.

“Whatever,” you say. You drank half a handle of Admiral Nelson and four Busch Lights last night and didn’t die. You’re young, healthy and invincible. “A few all-nighters and a regular bedtime of 3:00 AM won’t kill me.”

A few things. Firstly, that’s dope. I wish I could still drink like that and not have to call out of work for the next week. Secondly, while sleep deprivation might not kill you during your four years in university, it will very likely have an effect on your grades. (And long-term, it’s not great for your health either.)

Bad news if that gig at your uncle’s accounting firm has a GPA requirement.

More and more recent studies have shown just how detrimental not getting your eight hours can be for someone in a position that relies on learning, memory and critical thinking.

Mild sleep deprivation and the not-so-mild effects

Let’s look at partial sleep deprivation first. Say, for example, you’ve had a busy week and you’ve only got about five hours of sleep a night. Not that bad, right?

Wrong.

While getting a few hours less of sleep than recommended might not make you feel terrible, you could be performing terribly.

This level of sleep deprivation in adolescents has caused reduced verbal creativity and abstract thinking which, if you’re speaking publicly or trying to grasp the mechanisms of orbital geometry, are vitally important.

Building models of complex molecules in your head is frustrating enough without your brain’s “low fuel” light going off.

Additionally, shorter sleep periods or sleep cycles truncated by early morning courses can negatively affect memory and productivity. The science behind this particular subset of sleep research is complicated and convoluted, but the conclusions are fairly clear. Deprivation of certain specific sleep cycles (REM and Slow Wave) has been implicated in both learning performance and recall.

This level of sleep deprivation in adolescents has caused reduced verbal creativity and abstract thinking.

But wait…it gets worse

Sleep deprivation leads to more of something called Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), a component of the nightly sleep cycle.

When woken from sleep during an SWS period, you’ll exacerbate a phenomena known as sleep inertia. Sleep inertia refers to the period of time after waking where you feel tired and groggy, suffering from decreased cognitive performance and fatigue.

Normally, the period lasts about 30 minutes, but when sleep deprived and woken during SWS, the malaise and confusion can last up to four hours and worsen the intensity of sleep inertia. This means you’ll be functioning at a serious disadvantage during your morning classes or early study sessions.

It’s a negative feedback loop. Depriving yourself of sleep to study means more SWS, more SWS leads to an increased risk of sleep inertia, sleep inertia leads to decreased efficiency or motivation to study during the first part of your day, which means you’ll need to spend more time studying, more time studying means less time for sleep.

The paradoxical reality of pulling an all-nighter 

Student studying late

Bad news for the badasses out there who like to brag about their war stories of all-nighters: you’re not a badass. In fact, you’re hurting yourself more than you think.

It’s common that students stay awake for days on end during finals or midterms in hopes of amassing, absorbing and processing as much information as they possibly can. More time awake means more time learning which means better grades. Simple, right? Not really.

One particular study assigned individuals a graded visual discrimination task. Subjects were tested and retested in order to collect data on their learning performance over repeated trials.

The group who hadn’t slept in 30 hours before testing showed no increase in their performance of said task after repeated trials. Even after two days of rest and recovery, the sleep-deprived group was still suffering, again showing no improvement in their ability to complete the task.

Individuals with a normal sleeping pattern showed consistent improvement in their performance over time.

The study piles on more evidence of the importance of sleep on learning. One such experiment had subjects learn a motor skill-based task. They were tested in the morning, 12 hours later at night, then 12 hours later after a night of sleep. Subjects showed no significant improvement in their performance from morning to night, but did see an 18% increase in performance after a night of sleep.

In short, put the flashcards down for a minute and get some sleep. Beating your head against the books all night in hopes that repetition is helpful at the cost of sleep is scientifically inaccurate.

Your brain hits a wall where you’re no longer absorbing and understanding what you learn until you rest, and you need to listen to your brain. By pulling an all-nighter, you’re not only risking poor performance on the test tomorrow but for the next several days.

It’s a gamble that doesn’t often pay off.

Your brain hits a wall where you’re no longer absorbing and understanding what you learn until you rest.

Sometimes, though, the gamble is worth it

Pulling an all-nighter is, in general, a bad idea. This has been explained, and all you champions of all-nighters have already been insulted above.

However, there are some times when it’s forgivable.

If you have a test in the morning and your choice is to study your flashcards five times and get seven hours of sleep, or ten times and get no sleep, settle with seven. You need that sleep to assimilate and organize that information.

The same goes for speeches or presentations. Remember, sleep deprivation reduces visual creativity and the ability to think in the abstract – bad news for speaking and answering questions.

However, if you’re working on a paper, project or other assignment where completion is the only goal, it’s mostly OK to stay up for that.

So long as you don’t have any tests in the next day or two, it’s worth the effort and subsequent misery of staying up to work (within reason of course). The task at hand is just based on putting in hours and getting something on paper – not learning. That’s the key here.

Staying awake to learn has been shown not to work, but staying awake to complete assignments is a workable scenario. You’ll suffer from fatigue and some mental decline after a number of hours awake, but if you’re careful and come in prepared you can pull it off. Just don’t make it a habit.

Combating sleep deprivation

The best way to combat sleep deprivation is to develop a good schedule – both for work and for sleep. It takes effort, discipline and maybe turning down a party or two, but it’s essential.

Step one here is setting a bedtime and wake time, and sticking to itFor more information on getting to sleep on time, refer to the sleep hygiene guide here. Avoiding nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and stimulants is key to developing a normal sleep schedule and having a high quality of sleep as a student. It is, however, difficult given the omnipresence of the above substances in a university environment. Stick to your guns on this one.

Additionally, find ways to cut stress. Academic and social stressors are some of the most significant factors in keeping you up at night in college. Exercise, meditation, reading, watching Netflix, or schmoozin’ with boo (…or whatever you kids say now) are all valid ways to relieve stress at the end of the day. The more relaxed you are, the quicker you’ll find sleep.

It’s a simple explanation for a very complex issue though, and your stress issues may fall outside the normal spectrum. If you’re having trouble de-stressing and subsequently sleeping, there are resources on campus or through your primary care physician that can help. Use them.

Step two is developing proper study habits. Working efficiently is key here. Put your phone away, stay off Facebook and Reddit and limit chatting with your study buddies. Keep your study time as study time, not a social affair. My father once told me to treat it like an office job. Work on your studies eight hours a day, and pretend there’s a boss behind you checking if you’re wasting time on the internet or chatting with colleagues. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t work collaboratively – two heads are both better and more efficient than one. Working together to solve a problem set is one thing, working together to figure out who Arie is going to give a rose to next week on the Bachelor is another.

Study during the hours where you’re most mentally alert, and shift social or physical activities to the hours when you’re not. Some people like to work in the morning and afternoon, then exercise and socialize at night. The opposite can be true for others. Learn what works for you quickly, and stick to it.

Perhaps the most important study tip here is to go to office hours (or other campus learning resources). It can’t be said enough – going to a 20-minute session to ask a TA or Professor questions that have been stumping you is far more efficient than spending four hours frantically Googling answers to your problem.

There are dozens of other strategies and study tips out there, and you should use your Google-fu to search for them. 

Study during the hours where you’re most mentally alert, and shift social or physical activities to the hours when you’re not.

The fix is in: your brain needs sleep to learn

The science is a complex mix of biology, chemistry, neurology, and pharmacology, but the takeaway is simple: Sleep, sleep regularly and don’t make the mistake of trading sleep for something else. It does. not. work.

Still have questions? Leave us a comment below. As long as it’s not past your bedtime…