Sleep : Sleep Fuels Student Learning

Mara Rose Williams

The common college equation that can't be found on science lab wipe boards is something like this: lectures + coffee + cracking books + energy drinks + study groups + pizza + goofing off + more coffee + last-minute cramming + finals ZERO sleep.

Across the country, college and university counseling centers are stressing the importance of a good snooze to students as a way to boost academic performance, as well as mental and social soundness.

Brown University in Rhode Island has its first-year students keeping a daily sleep log so researchers can assess the students' slumber patterns.

The University of California at Davis this year launched a campaign teaching good sleep habits and encouraging students to nap during the day. And students at Truman State University literally will count sheep on campus in a few weeks as part of an annual campaign designed to encourage them to sleep more.

"If you get your full night's sleep, it actually gives a person 10 to 20 percent better retention for information," said Mary Carskadon, Brown University psychology professor. "One way to think about it is that sleep is brain food."

But many teens reported nibbling -- sleeping fewer than seven hours a night when nine to 10 hours a night is ideal. "Just last night I tried to study and ended up falling to sleep in my book," said Chelsea Russell, a theater major at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "I didn't get anything out of it."

Russell said she is constantly trying to squeeze sleep into her busy school schedule. Too often, she finds herself struggling to stay awake in class. "If you do not sleep, you cannot learn," said Nancy Hamilton, a University of Kansas psychology professor. "Research has shown that if you consistently get a good night's sleep, it can make a big difference between an A grade and an F."

Lack of sleep could be behind more than just bad grades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. CDC researchers recently released a report based on a survey of 12,000 teens that links sleep deprivation to risky behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse, even violence and thoughts of suicide.

"It's not certain which comes first, the lack of sleep or the risky behavior," Hamilton said. What is certain, she said, is that one amplifies the other. Most worrisome to Carskadon is the connection the CDC research makes to sleep deprivation and teens that admit having had serious suicidal thoughts. Research already has proved that teens lack full frontal lobe development and therefore consistent logic skills, reminded Hamilton. "When a teen is sleep deprived, one of the things affected is judgment," Hamilton said. "When you have kids the age where the judgment part of the brain isn't fully cooked, and they are not getting enough sleep, the chance of them engaging in risky behavior is multiplied.

"Drinking alcohol, using drugs, disrupts sleep," she said. "A lack of sleep makes a person more likely to engage in risky behavior -- wash, rinse, repeat." Adolescence is when a biological shift in the circadian sleep rhythm occurs, said Lela McKnight-Eily, a CDC psychologist and author of the sleep deprivation paper. "That is when teens begin wanting to stay up later and sleep later."

Forcing a change in that biologically driven sleep pattern jacks with the brain development that goes on in young people while they sleep, researchers said. Studies have long called for later-in-the morning school start times, but little has changed, at least in high schools.

Carskadon, who also is director of sleep research for the E.P. Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, has been outspoken about delaying school start times to coincide with the biological sleep needs of teens. She also said parents need to take a more firm role in enforcing better sleep habits.

"Teenagers need help and guidance and limits," said Carskadon, adding that poor sleep patterns developed in high school are carried to college and continue to affect a student's behavior and academic achievement level. Giovanni Brown, a biochemistry major, said that between UMKC classes, studying and work, "I know I don't get enough sleep. It's hard for me. Class starts at 8 a.m., and my day doesn't even start winding down until 10 p.m. I don't get to bed most nights until midnight."

Carskadon urges her Ivy League students not to cram. "If you cram all night, you may do OK on the exam the next morning, but as soon as you write it down, you don't remember it. You are not learning." Kim Dude, director of the University of Missouri Wellness Resource Center, also discourages trying to make up the sleep on the weekends. More favorable, she said, is to take advantage of strategically placed lounge areas around campus to catch a "catnap" between studying or classes.

Researchers there say a good nap is not a substitute for a good night's sleep. Rachel Sage, a sophomore studying pharmacy at UMKC, said she gets about five hours of sleep but opts for "napping every now and then during the day."

Energy drinks? "They don't really work," said Dan Sunderland. Trust him. He's another UMKC pharmacy major.

"Occasionally, when I've had a particularly hard day, I drink a Monster Energy," 160 mg of caffeine, or four times the caffeine in a can of Coke Classic. "It's good while I'm drinking it, but as soon as I'm done, I crash."

"Yeah, I've seen him just crash right into his book," verified Sage. Marketing major Christina Bumgarner admits to being a coffee addict. "I drink at least two cups a day, but somedays it's five or six cups."

The Truman State "Sheep on the Quad" is just one tactic the school uses to draw student attention to the importance of sleep, said Brenda Higgins, director of the student health and counseling offices on the Kirksville campus.

The bleating animals are supposed get the students' attention and give health and counseling center workers the chance to talk to them. "It's just one of the things we do to get the information out," Higgins said.

To reach Mara Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send e-mail to

©2011 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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