NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Sleepy Students Learning?

January 9, 2013

The need for sleep is as basic as drinking water, yet people seem to be getting less of it. Students, in particular, report a lack of adequate sleep. This is troubling considering that it's been long established that a good night's sleep is essential to learning, says Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia.

  • The general rule of thumb is that adolescents should be getting about eight or nine hours of sleep.
  • Under this measure, only 8 percent of teens report optimal sleep.
  • In fact, 69 percent of students report getting insufficient sleep.
  • For example, 18 year olds receive an average of just 7.5 hours of sleep a night.

This is especially problematic considering that poor sleepers perform worse in correlational and experimental studies. Furthermore, sleep deprivation can affect both the mood and behavior of a student, and even magnify certain anxiety issues.

The fact that students are getting less sleep is a trend in modern society that can be explained through several factors. For instance, biological issues can explain why people sleep later. The circadian rhythm tells the body when it's time to sleep as well as hormones such as melatonin and cortisol which make a person sleepy or wakeful. Some studies show that students during adolescent years have weak melatonin and cortisol signals, which may explain why students may not seem very tired at night or wakeful during the day.

Other studies claim that external factors are the primary reason why adolescents are not getting enough sleep. These include a constant connection with electronics such as cellphones, television and computers. There is social pressure to stay awake on Skype or Facebook chat with friends late at night. Furthermore, stimulation from television or lights from being in a densely populated urban area may keep people awake.

One thing that educators can look at is the effect of having classes later in the day. Some assume that if classes begin later in the day, students will simply go to bed at a later time. On the contrary, studies have shown that classes starting even one hour later than they normally do have better attendance and happier students that are better prepared.

Source: Daniel T. Willingham, "Are Sleepy Students Learning?" American Educator, Winter 2012-2013.


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