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I love sleep and I want others to love it too. As a college professor, I work in a culture that, well, let’s just say does not prioritize healthy sleep habits. So two years ago I set out to teach a college class about sleep science and sleep health.
Throughout the semester, we talked about the risks of sleep deprivation — car crashes, susceptibility to colds, and emotional instability. We talked about the benefits of a good night of sleep — preserving memories, restoring our focus, and clearing the brain of toxins. And, of course, we emphasized scientifically-supported ways to improve sleep — putting away electronics, avoiding caffeine after 5 p.m., and writing your to-do list before bed, among many others. By educating these students, I expected all of them to improve their sleep habits.
I was wrong. Completely wrong.
I would come to each class and see students with dreary eyes and forlorn looks, having appeared to have recently rolled out of bed. It was an 11 a.m. class. When I would ask how they slept the previous night, they would take a gulp from their Venti Americano and sheepishly report sleeping only five hours. Worse yet, when I had the students fill out sleep health questionnaires at the end of the semester, their responses were nearly the same as when they filled out the questionnaires during the first week of class. I soon learned that I was not the only instructor to have this experience. School-based sleep education programs were showing that even when you improve sleep knowledge you typically do not improve sleep behaviors.
Our approach was not working, finals week was looming, and something had to change.
Hence, the “Eight Hour Sleep Challenge.” I challenged my students to improve their sleep habits during the most difficult time of the semester — final exams week — and I offered the strongest incentive I could muster. I told students that if they could average eight hours a night throughout final exams week then I would award them with eight extra credit points on the final exam. On the other hand, so as to discourage all-nighters and yo-yo sleep, students were told that if they averaged fewer than six hours of sleep, then they would lose six points.
(At this point, my students typically gasp, grunt, and laugh nervously.)
Would you attempt this challenge? Would your son or your daughter? Prior to incentivizing sleep, we had found that fewer than 20 percent of students met minimum recommendations of sleeping seven hours, and almost no college students met optimal recommendations of sleeping eight to nine hours, during finals week. Therefore, when nearly half of my students opted to attempt the challenge, I wasn’t going to just rely on them just telling me how much they slept. Instead, they wore a validated wristband actigraphy device to objectively measure their sleep.
To my happy astonishment, every student who opted-in to the challenge was successful! In fact, in pursuit of sleeping eight hours per night, these students as a whole actually averaged over nine hours per night. What does that tell you about the need for sleep in college students? It tells me that sleep is underrated.
I have since replicated the sleep challenge with my colleague Elise King, Assistant Professor at Baylor University. We studied her freshman interior design students, who had not received extensive education on sleep health. Nevertheless, the class was still quite successful at the challenge: 90 percent of the students slept more than seven hours and more than half slept at least eight hours. In our most recent class challenge, we dropped the points penalty for short sleep, and that encouraged every student in the class to attempt the challenge. As a whole, the class averaged more than eight hours of sleep per night, even though it was finals week.
A core reason that students pull all-nighters during finals week is the assumption that more hours awake means more time for studying, which means a better final grade. By this logic, the students who opted-in to the sleep challenge should perform worse on their final exam. They did not! Sleeping longer, with more consistent bedtimes, was associated with better performance on their final exams. Now, if you’re like me, you’re wondering whether this correlation simply meant that students who were successful on the challenge were just higher-performing students. When we controlled for performance on all prior quizzes, tests, and essays, we found that those who succeeded on the sleep challenge performed four points better on their final exam — even prior to us adding extra credit.
“It was the first time my brain worked while taking a final exam.”
I could even see the benefit of sleep on an individual level: One student who had previously struggled on quizzes and tests, but succeeded on the sleep challenge, remarked that it was “the first time my brain worked while taking an exam.” One year later, the student reported to continuing healthy sleep habits and earned one of the better grades in my upper-level neuroscience course on cognition.
College students can maintain healthy sleep habits during finals week, without sacrificing their grades. The key is to manage your time well during the day. Working in a quiet environment, avoiding technology distractions, and spacing out your studying is every cognitive scientists’ recommendation. Using efficient study habits will allow you more time to sleep at night, and better sleep at night will restore your brain’s capacity to study more efficiently the next day. For all of these reasons I love sleep, and I hope you discover that you love it too.
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