Sleep and Academic Performance Statistics & Sleep Tips for College Students

Sleep and Academic Performance Statistics & Sleep Tips for College Students
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Pulling all-nighters for a project or an exam is viewed as a part of a rite of passage for college students. It certainly does not help that students who do this are seen as hardworking and studious. However, studies show that there are more academic and health benefits when students get enough sleep versus getting little or none at all.

In this article, you can find out why for college students, getting enough sleep is vital to academic success. Learn about the reasons why college students lack sleep, the effects of poor sleep quality, and how to make sure to get a good night’s rest.

The Sleep Situation of College Students

With the mounting pressure of school, work, and social activities, college students are depriving themselves of sleep. In a study by Lund et al (2010), they found that 60% of college students were poor sleepers based on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. These students report delayed bedtime and rise times during weekends and frequently took prescription, over-the-counter, or recreational psychoactive drugs to change their sleeping patterns.

On the other hand, 74% of college students who participated in a German study said that they suffer from sleep disturbances or are experiencing difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep. Thirty percent reported having one sleep disorder; 11% had insomnia and nightmares; 7% had insomnia, nightmares, and are irregular sleep-wake types; and 4% had insomnia and are irregular sleep-wake types (Schlarb et al, 2017).

Why do college students not get enough sleep?

Studying away from home gives college students a taste of freedom. As they navigate this new environment, they find experiences to fill their time. Those who can’t manage their time well often find themselves missing out on some shuteye. In a report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the causes of college students not getting enough sleep are poor sleep hygiene, alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants, technology, and sleep disorders (Hershner & Chervin, 2014).

Good sleep hygiene means one practices sleeping and waking up at regular times. It also involves having a good sleeping environment, not drinking coffee after lunch, and avoiding doing stimulating activities before bed (Hershner & Chervin, 2014).

Alcohol consumption is partly responsible for why college students are not getting enough sleep. According to the NIH report, around 40% of college students report “binge drinking” with at least four to five drinks in a row within the last 14 days. In addition, 11.6% of students who drank alcohol use it as a sleeping aid (Hershner & Chervin, 2014).

To keep themselves awake, college students often turn to coffee and energy drinks. Among 18- to 24-year old adults, for instance, 34% consume energy drinks regularly. However, whatever short-term gains they may enjoy are offset by its detrimental effects. Drinking coffee in the afternoon has been shown to impair one’s ability to fall asleep. On the other hand, consumption of energy drinks has been linked to higher use of alcohol and other drugs like stimulants. In fact, the use of stimulants is a growing issue among young adults. Studies show that the lifetime prevalence of stimulant use is between 6.9 to 14% for university students across the U.S. (Hershner & Chervin, 2014).

The explosion in the use of devices also contributes to why people are sleeping less. According to the 2011 Sleep in America Poll, those from Generation Y, or adults who are 19 to 29 years old, are heavy users of technology before going to bed. Poll data shows that 67% of them use cell phones, 60% use computers, 43% use music devices, and 18% play video games. However, frequent use of technology exposes users to light that suppresses one’s melatonin levels, which in turn delays sleep onset (Hershner & Chervin, 2014).

Source: Sleep in America Poll

Lastly, a number of college students also suffer from sleep disorders. According to a study by Gaultney (2010), 27% of students were at risk of suffering from at least one sleep disorder or sleep-related problem. Specifically, they were more likely to develop sleep apnea (4%), hypersomnia (4%), circadian rhythm sleep disorders (7%), restless legs disorder and periodic limb movement disorder (8%), and insomnia (12%).

Why is it important for college students to get enough sleep?

While people extol the habit of burning the midnight oil, it turns out that for college students, getting enough sleep is vital to academic success. In a sleep study by Lowry et al (2010), the quantity of sleep was shown to be significantly related to academic performance. According to the researchers, one’s grade point average (GPA) decreases as the average number of days per week that a student got less than five hours of sleep increases. The study also found that there was no correlation between GPA and the number of all-nighters that the student experienced in the past year and the number of days that the student slept for less than five hours in the past week.

In a more recent study, researchers found that every night of the week that college students had trouble sleeping was associated with a drop of 0.02 points in their cumulative GPA. In addition, it increased the likelihood that the student will drop a course by 10%. First-year students in particular were 14% more likely to drop a class for every day of the week that they do not get enough sleep (Rapaport, 2018).

Another study that affirms the importance of sleep to college students was conducted by MIT professors. Using sleep data from students who wore Fitbit fitness trackers, Okano et al (2019) found that “both longer sleep duration and better sleep quality over the full month before a midterm were more associated with better test performance.” They call this “content-relevant sleep,” because the implication of their findings is that getting enough sleep at the time you learn the content is more important than getting the same kind of sleep the night before a quiz or assessment. With these findings, college students ought to rethink how to prepare for examinations.

Having better overall mental health is also one of the benefits of getting enough sleep for students. In a study, Milojevich and Lukowski (2016) found that poorer sleep quality was linked to an increase in internalizing problems like aggression, intrusion, and rule-breaking. It was also linked to externalizing problems like anxiety, withdrawal, and somatic problems. In addition, they found that poor sleep quality was related to an increase in a host of other mental health issues, such as problems with antisocial personality, attention-deficit/hyperactivity, and depression. The data suggests that poor sleep quality is “broadly associated with reduced mental health in university students—even those with generally healthy sleep habits.”

Moreover, in a study by Ramsey et al (2019) insufficient sleep leads to a 20% increase in developing mental health symptoms. For each night of insufficient sleep, loneliness increases by 19%, depressed mood by 21%, anxiety by 25%, and exhaustion by 29%. It is also linked to suicidal thoughts, increasing the desire to inflict self-harm by 25% and an increase in suicidal thinking by 28%. By getting enough sleep, college students position themselves to better deal with the causes of student stress.

Impact of Lack of Sleep for One Night To Mental Health Issues

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Source: Ramsey et al

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How to Ensure Good Quality Sleep

The importance of sleep for college students cannot be underscored enough. Below are some tips for college students to ensure good quality sleep.

  • Turn your bedroom into a relaxing environment. Make sure that it’s cool and dark, ideally with a temperature between 60-67°F. Keep out unwanted light by using shades, curtains, or blinds (Headspace, n.d.). Avoid using gadgets while on your bed so your brain will associate your bed with only sleeping (HelpGuide, n.d.).
  • Be mindful of what you eat and drink before bedtime. The CDC advises not to consume heavy meals, caffeine, or alcohol before you hit the sack (CDC, n.d.). A study has shown that caffeine intake six hours before bed disrupts sleep (Drake et al, 2013). It’s best to steer clear of drinking large amounts of coffee after 3 or 4 p.m (Mawer, 2018). Also, don’t go to bed hungry or have a big meal two to three hours before you sleep. Eat a light snack like cheese, crackers, or apple slices if you feel hungry (Harvard Health, 2012).
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Allot enough time for sleep on your schedule. The NIH recommends that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Starting from your desired wake up time, work your way backward to find out your target bedtime. Then wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends. This will help your body establish a regular sleep-wake cycle (SleepFoundation, n.d.).
  • Be conscious of light exposure. Expose yourself to daylight by going outside or opening up your windows to natural light. If doing so is not possible, consult your doctor about using a light therapy box (SleepFoundation, n.d.). At night, do not expose yourself to blue light from TVs, computers, cell phones, and other gadgets. Turn them off an hour before going to bed (Ambardekar, 2019).

Stop the Snooze: Get Enough Sleep

Not getting enough sleep is a common problem among college students. College students deprive themselves of sleep because they lack good sleep hygiene and take too much alcohol, coffee, energy drinks, or stimulants. The prevalent use of technology before bedtime and sleep disorders are the other culprits in this phenomenon.

Based on various researches, one of the main benefits of getting enough sleep for students includes better test scores and higher GPAs, contributing to overall academic performance. Good quality sleep has also been linked to reduced risks of suffering from mental health issues.

To get good quality sleep, it is important for college students to have a relaxing sleeping environment and to avoid coffee and heavy meals before bedtime. They should also keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule, get some sunlight during the day, and avoid blue light at night.

 

References:

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  4. Gaultney, J. (2010). The prevalence of sleep disorders in college students: impact on academic performance. Journal of American College Health, 59, 2, 91-97. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2010.483708
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  13. Milojevich, H. and Lukowski, A. (2016, June 9). Sleep and mental health in undergraduate students with generally healthy sleep habits. PLoS One, 11 (6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0156372
  14. Ramsey, T., Athey, A., Ellis, J., Tubbs, A., Turner, R., Killgore, W., Warlick, C., Alfonso-Miller, P., & Grandner, M. (2019 April). Dose-response relationship between insufficient sleep and mental health symptoms in collegiate student-athletes and non-athletes. Sleep, 42 (1), A362. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsz067.899
  15. Rapaport, L. (2018, Sept. 12). Sleep may impact college grades more than drinking or drugs. Reuters.
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