New Harvard Class on Sleep is Helping Students Prioritize Their Health

Harvard freshman are now required to take Sleep 101, a module educating students on the importance of sleep for their health, before arriving to campus

By Nicole Gleichmann

College students aren’t best known for their healthy work-life-sleep balance. Between all-nighters before tests, parties during the weekends (and some weekdays…), sports, clubs, work, and friends, it can be hard to find time to get enough sleep each night.

Yet, sleep is critical for our overall health and wellbeing. It can impact how well we learn and remember things, our ability to cope with stress, how often we get sick, and much more. Unfortunately, few college students truly understand how sleep impacts their health and performance.

Harvard is tackling this sleep deprivation problem with a new class on proper sleep that was introduced in the summer of 2018 for incoming freshman. With this class required for all freshmen, it might be just what students need to help them prioritize sleep during periods of intense multitasking.

Why Harvard Decided to Add Sleep 101

Sleepy college student

With Harvard being one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, it might not come as a surprise that their students can become quite busy juggling coursework and extracurricular activities in such a competitive setting. In order to perform at their best, many students assume that they must work late into the night and wake up early each morning.

In fact, this lack of sleep is almost a badge of honor amongst high performers. The culture is that you sacrifice sleep for success, and the more you do so, the greater your high-achiever status.

Yet, research has found sleep to play a central role in our memory and learning abilities. When we don’t get enough of it, our performance suffers. Plus, it can be harder for us to cope with stress, something that we’re almost guaranteed to experience during college.

Saved by the Bell

Harvard student Raymond So first learned about this relationship when he took the seminar “Time for Sleep: Impact of Sleep Deficiency and Circadian Disruption in our 24/7 Culture” during his first year. For his final project, So conducted a survey that found noise to impact sleep quality at one of the Harvard dormitories. The largest noise complaint were bells that ring every weekday morning. He tried to get the Undergraduate Council to change the timing of those bells, but did not succeed.

But this didn’t discourage So. He knew that he wanted to do something to help his fellow students sleep better. He learned of the Sleep 101 course from his professor Charles Czeisler, who helped to develop it as part of the Sleep Matters Initiative at Brigham Health. So requested funding for a sleep-education initiative that would make Sleep 101 available to incoming Freshman. His request was approved, and students entering Harvard for the 2018-2019 school year were given the gift of learning about sleep.

What Exactly is Sleep 101?

Sleep 101 is a short but informative interactive online module that incoming freshman are now required to take before they arrive for their first night on campus. It’s not a new program, but instead has been being crafted for years as part of the Sleep Matters Initiative with the goal of improving a toxic sleep culture in colleges. This class is designed to:

  • Teach students about sleep’s impact on health, performance, and safety
  • Provide tips on maintaining a healthy sleep schedule

During this module, students learn why sleep is important and exactly how insufficient sleep negatively impacts their lives. They are introduced to proper sleep hygiene, with information on how screen time, exercise, and food can impact sleep. They’re even informed about the positives and negatives of using caffeine as a replacement for sleep.

The hope is that this module will give future students the knowledge they need to form good habits before bad habits take over. Sleep 101’s creators aim to help change the culture of sleep that exists in Harvard and other competitive arenas to support students’ mental health and performance.

Is Sleep 101 Helping Students?

Researchers have already conducted a study on the effects of Sleep 101. In a 2017 study published in the Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care, students from four universities took Sleep 101 and later completed a voluntary survey. The results suggest that the course might help reduce the tendency to pull “all-nighters” or drive drowsy, and that it ultimately may help to reduce sleep problems among college students.

And as for students at Harvard specifically, reported multiple positive experiences. One student reported that she was going to aim for a regular midnight to 8 A.M. sleep schedule, and another that he was going to try and avoid screen time 30 minutes before bed.

So believes that this course emphasizes that you can have “good grades, a good social life and a good sleep schedule.” This shift in perception is likely to positively impact the college experience of many students.

Other Universities Are Following Suit

Sleep 101 has been used in more colleges than Harvard. It was piloted at over a dozen colleges, with the goal of reaching more college campuses in upcoming years. Pallas S. Ziporyn is a project manager for Sleep 101 who is responsible for managing partnerships with other institutions.

Hopefully the next few years will see Sleep 101 spreading to campuses across the nation. In this way, college students can learn to use sleep as a tool for their happiness and success, instead of seeing it as  hindrance.

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