Sleeping Through the Semester
A study on how often college students are sleeping through class and how much it's costing them
Feb 14th, 2020 •
A dose of truth for parents with kids in college: However much you urge your students to get enough sleep, they’re unlikely to comply. Life on campus presents a range of options and obligations – work, social activities, studying, and partying – and most students sacrifice sleep to fit it all in.
Sleep deprivation is a way of life for many college students. According to an article published in Nature and Science of Sleep, sleep deprivation runs rampant on college campuses. One survey found that as much as 50% of college students report daytime sleepiness and less than 30% get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep. And the consequences of this sleep crisis among college students include more than their feeling cranky. Compromised learning along with its attendant decrease in grade point averages and increased risk of academic failure are just some of the problems students face when they don’t sleep enough.
Yet many students employ an interesting solution to their ongoing fatigue: Whether intentionally or accidentally, plenty of them sleep in class. When you’ve been awake for hours on end, it’s easy to doze off to the lulling sounds of a lecture. But how many people actually get their rest in class? Mattress Advisor surveyed about 1,000 college students to find out.
Our findings revealed how frequently the typical college student dozed off in class and which majors were most likely to include unsanctioned nap times. Additionally, we studied just how much these snoozes cost our respondents, given the average price of college credit hours. Whether you’re a student, parent, or professor, you won’t want to miss what we found out.
In-class catnaps are exceedingly common: On average, students sleep in class 12 times in a given semester. Interestingly, patterns of dozing off in class varied significantly by academic discipline; certain majors are apparently ripe for snoozing.
Students majoring in fields related to the environment, for example, typically racked up over 16 sleeping days each semester. Health-related majors slept in class on nearly 14 occasions each semester as well – a statistic their future patients may find unsettling. Unfortunately, stress and sleeplessness typically follow aspiring health professionals into grad school as well; self-care is a major challenge among medical school students.
Conversely, language and social science-related majors had the fewest in-class sleeping days on average. This finding may reflect the structure of courses in these subjects, rather than the well-being of the students who take them. In foreign language courses, for example, students might be asked to practice conversational skills aloud, a difficult skill to employ while sleeping. Similarly, higher-level social science courses might entail more seminar-style discussions than other majors – forget the sleep-inducing anonymity of a large lecture hall.
Dozing and Dollars
Because the cost of college has risen astronomically in recent years, sleeping through class can be an expensive proposition. Using the average tuition costs for an in-state student at a public university, we estimated how much money students in each major were wasting in a given semester.
Environment-related majors attending a public school, for example, spent over $500 worth of class time zonked out, while their private school counterparts slept away nearly $2,000. Health-related majors were nearly as prone to this expensive kind of rest, wasting nearly five percent of their semester tuition while sleeping.
Conversely, language or social science majors were the only cohorts to waste less than $350 on average by being asleep in class. It’s interesting that so many students sleep through classes that they or their parents paid for, given that paying for school is frequently a source of stress.
One recent study found that students in the U.S. were particularly likely to feel stress about affording their studies compared to peers in other developed nations. Perhaps many students feel they are paying for the opportunities a degree makes possible – rather than the privilege of learning in class.
Though we’ve noted differences with in-class sleeping among various majors, specific course subjects seemed particularly conducive to dozing off.
Math classes, for example, were especially likely to induce sleep. Interestingly, however, social sciences were among the most likely to make our respondents sleepy, despite the fact that social science majors slept least in class on average. This phenomenon could be attributable to introductory courses required of all students at many large universities.
When you’re packed into a lecture hall with hundreds of other underclassmen for Intro Psychology, it’s a safe bet that dozens of your classmates may be dozing off. Indeed, our respondents were most likely to report sleeping in class as freshmen, the year in which many students take such courses.
By contrast, our respondents were far less likely to sleep in elective courses. This result suggests that sincere interest in a given subject may supersede sleep needs. Additionally, students were relatively unlikely to catch some shut-eye in courses exploring diversity and culture. Perhaps these subjects produce attention-worthy discussions and personal reflection.
Why Students Are Dozing Off
When asked why they slept in classes, our respondents were most likely to say they weren’t getting enough rest elsewhere. More than three-quarters blamed lack of sleep for dozing off in class, suggesting many would stay awake if they had their choice in the matter.
Then again, 65 percent of the students studied attributed their in-class sleeping to a lack of interest in the subject being taught. Being less than engaged can be instructive in its own right, however. Nearly a third of students change majors within their first three years of college, and those who do graduate at higher rates than those who don’t. Seen in this light, a good dose of boredom could provide the clarity needed to make a useful change.
Another commonly cited cause of sleeping in class concerned timing. Forty-three percent of respondents said they were drowsy because their classes began too early or late. This complaint is substantiated by sleep science: Researchers have found that undergraduates are more capable of learning later in the day than early in the morning, due to biological aspects of young adulthood. Interestingly, relatively few respondents blamed the lighting or temperature of the classroom for their sleeping – perhaps dimming the lights for a presentation isn’t a sleep risk after all.
If sleeping in class is relatively common, our respondents admitted that it had its consequences. More than 6 in 10 respondents said they regretted dozing off, for reasons ranging from academic issues to sheer embarrassment.
The top cause for regret was missing important information discussed in class, with nearly 62 percent of men and 77 percent of women claiming this had happened. Some felt humiliated in front of others: Getting called out by a professor or making an awkward noise (such as snoring) were top causes of regret as well.
While studies have linked consistent sleep to excellence in academic performance, many of the grade-related consequences our respondents reported were quite striking. Male respondents were particularly likely to report academic issues related to in-class sleeping. Nearly 1 in 5 men reported failing an exam because they’d been asleep in class, and 13 percent said their GPAs had fallen. Women were significantly less likely to report either consequence, though they did describe negative reactions from classmates more often than their male peers.
Sleeping Well – Outside the Classroom
A new study out of Penn State showed that by merely trying to increase their sleep by one hour college students made marked improvements in their health, including significantly lowering their blood pressure and their daytime sleepiness scores. Furthermore, and possibly more important to the participants, extending their nighttime sleep significantly lowered their scores on the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. Even slight increases in their sleep durations made them feel better the next day.
This extra hour of sleep could make a difference in helping students stay awake during class, but it isn’t always so easy to obtain. Our results are indicative of college life’s crucial challenges: With so many exciting opportunities at one’s disposal, allocating time and energy is rarely easy. As a result, many find themselves placing necessary rest above their studies, sleeping through classes that they regret missing in retrospect.
But precisely because sleeping in class is exceedingly common, we can’t attribute the issue to students’ indifference or irresponsibility. Rather, we must consider how demands upon students’ time are in constant competition, often at the expense of their well-being. How can parents and educators support better sleep choices, rather than scolding students too tired to participate fully? In conversations about success in college, this question may go ignored all too often.
At least there’s a practical and affordable solution for improved sleep: Get a mattress that’s truly tailored to your needs. Even those who devote enough time to sleep can experience lingering fatigue if their mattress doesn’t meet their particular needs. Let our guides and resources help you compare features and prices, so you can enjoy the restorative benefits of sleep – in college or elsewhere.
We collected responses from 997 people using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. 50.2% of the participants were female, and 49.8% were male. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 76 with a mean of 31 and a standard deviation of 10.16. Participants were excluded if they had never fallen asleep in class or were clearly not paying attention (e.g., failed attention check questions or entered obviously inconsistent data). Statistical testing was not performed. We weighted the data to 2017 BLS data for age, gender, and race of Americans.
Majors were grouped as follows:
- Environment-related majors (31): Agriculture, Animal Sciences, Anthropology, Archaeology, Food Science, Geography, Wildlife and Fishery Science
- Health-related majors (89): Biobehavioral Health, Health and Physical Education, Health Policy and Administration, Human Development and Family Studies, Kinesiology, Nursing, Nutrition, Pre-Medicine, Rehabilitation Services, Social Work
- Technology-related majors (135): Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Information Sciences and Technology, Telecommunications
- Architecture/Engineering-related majors (52): Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Architectural Engineering, Architecture, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Landscape Architecture, Mechanical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering
- Business-related majors (231): Accounting, Advertising, Agricultural Business Management, Business Administration and Management, Business Logistics, Economics, Finance, Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management, Marketing, and Public Relations
- Science/Math-related majors (148): Actuarial Science, Animal Bioscience, Applied Mathematics, Biochemistry, Bioengineering, Biology, Biotechnology, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Engineering Science, Environmental Sciences, General Science, Geosciences, Marine Biology, Mathematics, Microbiology, Physics, Physiology, Political Science
- Arts-related majors (83): Art Education, Art History, Dance, Film and Video, Graphic Design and Photography, Media Studies, Music Education, Studio Art, Theater
- Language/Social Science-related majors (228): Children, Crime, Law, and Justice, Elementary and Kindergarten Education, English, History, Journalism, Law Enforcement and Correction, Modern Languages, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies, Secondary Education, Sociology, Special Education, Speech Communication, Speech Pathology and Audiology/Communication Disorders, Women’s Studies
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