Sleep's Impact on Academic Performance

It’s More Important Than You Think

By Sheryl Grassie

Sleep affects everyone, all the time, in profound ways. You may be aware that a lack of sleep can lead to physical conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and cancer, but did you know that it can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, mood swings, and nervous conditions?

A lesser known, and lesser studied, result of sleep is how it can enhance or compromise cognitive functioning. A lack of sleep, or poor-quality sleep, can cause memory problems, create difficulty with information processing, and even lower your IQ. Knowing this, it isn’t a stretch to theorize that sleep irregularities are correlated to lowered academic performance, which requires a good memory, information processing, and high functioning intelligence.

Beyond theory, however, there are more studies looking at the relationship between sleep and how we do in school. This applies to everyone from preschool through graduate school and beyond. If you want to be an accomplished learner, if you want to do well in school, if you want to achieve in the academic performance department, you need your sleep.

Three pupils in classroom, one of them sleeping

How Sleep Impacts Academic Performance

Sleep is a necessity and without it we would literally lose our minds, our health, and our lives in short order. Living with less than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended sleep duration of 7-9 hours daily runs the risk of lowered function in all areas of health and performance, including academic.

You might be wondering how does this happen? How does lack of sleep translate to doing poorly in school or having difficulty with learning tasks?

During sleep you have cycles where the brain goes in and out of light and deep sleep. The deepest cycle is called rapid eye movement (REM) and during REM the brain literally processes information and stores memories. Without enough time in REM, the brain cannot clean out toxic proteins like beta amyloid and tau which can interfere with storing information. The brain needs to process and file away information from the day so there is space for new information to come in the following day. If this is done properly what you learn gets filed neatly for easy access when you need recall. If this doesn’t happen properly, you can have trouble remembering things when you need them.

Amounts of Sleep and Sleep Schedules

When sleep patterns and sleep amounts fall outside optimal norms, this is when you run the risk of lowered functioning. This affects us at all ages, whether or not we are in school, and directly affects learning, recall, and how well one does academically.

Sleep Amounts

Sleep amounts vary depending on your age. Even an hour less than the minimum can have disastrous consequences. For academic performance, studies show that less than the minimum, even on an irregular basis, can cause a decrease in GPA, as well as daytime sleepiness that inhibits learning. Below is a chart using the National Sleep Foundations’ recommended amounts of sleep for various age groups.

Age Hours of Sleep
0 to 3 months 14 to 17 hours
4 to 11 months 12 to 15 hours
1 to 2 years 11 to 14 hours
3 to 5 years 10 to 13 hours
6 to 13 years 9 to 11 hours
14 to 17 years 8 to 10 hours
18 to 25 years 7 to 9 hours
26 to 64 years 7 to 9 hours
65 and over 7 to 8 hours

Sleep Patterns

The ideal sleep schedule is to go to bed with the dark and get up with the light, and to have a consistent schedule that your body can count on. This means going to sleep at the same time nightly and waking at the same time daily. This applies for infants through seniors.

Sleep and Performance by Age Group

Elementary Students

Something funny about our human nature is that we are the only mammals who delay sleep. You can clearly see this desire in how young children fight sleep. If your elementary school child puts up a fuss at bedtime, can’t fall asleep, has erratic bedtimes, and sleeps less than 9 hours, it may well be linked to any difficulties they are having in school. It could also be linked to behavior problems and mood swings. Work to establish a routine and keep it consistent.

High School Students

Teens between the ages of 14 and 17 need 8 to 10 hours nightly with an average of 9 hours. Most are only getting around 7 hours. Adolescence is a crucial time to get adequate sleep and academic performance can easily suffer as a result. Sports, social commitments, and changing schedules can all interfere. Help your high school student improve academic performance by encouraging them to sleep at the same time daily and reinforce the importance of sleep in doing well.

College Students

When we reach the post-secondary years, this age group is considered at high-risk for sleep disorders. A fair amount of it is lifestyle induced with intense schedules that can include school, work, and a social life that leaves little room for sleep. The use of alcohol and recreational drugs can support sleep disorders like sleep apnea and advanced sleep phase disorder. This age group is notorious for having a less than totally mature thought process that invites pushing limits. Many college age students develop bad habits of drinking too much caffeine, staying up too late, pulling all-nighters, and sleeping at irregular intervals. All of these behaviors have been shown to lower GPAs and cause daytime drowsiness that makes learning difficult.

Graduate Students

Adults may choose to tackle graduate school at any age. It will most likely happen in conjunction with working and raising a family and can really challenge a consistent sleep schedule making good academic performance difficult. Perhaps the most notorious group of sleepless graduate students are medical students. Their extremely rigorous schedule is a recipe for sleep deprivation and sleep disorders. Studies have been conducted regarding the effects of sleep on medical students with some not surprising, results that confirm the connection between poor sleep and lowered academic performance.

Correcting Sleep Problems for Better Academic Outcomes

Best practices in sleep, or sleep hygiene, looks at the body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm and makes recommendations on how to get it back on track when you experience irregular sleep or poor sleep. There are over 80 different sleep disorders including circadian rhythm disorder that can be induced by irregular sleep patterns.

However, if you try telling a college student, or an elementary age student for that matter, that they need to go to bed at the same time every night, you will likely be met with resistance. There are things you can do to support your child or do for yourself if you are an adult, that can help move you towards more regular sleep patterns. Here are some basics.

Get Daylight

Research studies have found that light is probably the most important factor in regulating sleep. Light in the morning stops the production of melatonin that makes you drowsy and keeps you asleep. Light in the morning is critical to keeping a normal circadian rhythm in place. Lack of daylight can cause a delay in melatonin release and push back bedtimes. If children aren’t sleepy at bedtime, make sure they are getting enough daylight early in the day. If teens are sleeping in until late morning, entice them to get up and out during earlier daylight hours. Studies show that regular sleepers get far more daylight than those with irregular sleep patterns. Also don’t make up for lost sleep during the day at the risk of getting less daylight.

Curb the Screens

Another issue with light is blue light. Falling asleep to the TV, playing video games until bedtime, checking your social media before you fall asleep, or working on a computer in the evening all expose you to blue light. Another way to impede your normal circadian rhythm, the exposure to blue light from screens in the hours before bed, can cause a disruption of sleep cycles. Plan for something else like reading, chores around the house, or socializing before bed. Don’t let young children have screens in their rooms or watch them in the evening.

Maintain a Schedule

Consistency is one of the keys to a healthy sleep life. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Decide on a time to wake up and force yourself out of bed, no pressing the snooze button, no rolling over. It may not sound like a fun thing to do, but it will reap untold benefits for the doer.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

This means curb the alcohol, don’t eat before bed, get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Do something relaxing before bed like a bath or listening to music. Sleep in a quiet, dark, cool room. Use a noise machine or room darkening curtains if they help. Try some lavender aromatherapy, a nice cup of bedtime tea, or some melatonin to help you relax.


Summary

If you, or someone close to you, is experiencing challenges academically, look to sleep as a possible contributor. Irregular sleep, sleep disorders, and poor-quality sleep all are quantifiable contributors to lowered academic performance. This is a world-wide problem that affects students from preschool through medical school years, and results in pervasive cognitive problems and lower GPA’s. Working on regular sleep patterns by regulating light exposure and practicing good sleep hygiene is a first course of action to support regular sleep.


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