The quality of sleep remains generally underestimated, particularly with regard to academic performance. Two recently published studies have proven that good-quality sleep can contribute to academic success.
The transition into university is a period of significant changes for most young adults. The much-desired increase in autonomy brings greater responsibility and requires the ability to make balanced time-management decisions. This greater freedom comes with competing interests between academic priorities, social events, digital entertainment and even the number of hours slept. Young university students have plenty of reasons to stay up until late, but the consequences of poor sleep are well documented. Three studies, led by Juliana Nunes Ramos, Laila Taghvaee and João Dinis, showed that poor sleep can lead to problems such as anxiety, depression and risk behaviour.
Previous research studies are now being complemented by solid data on how sleep can affect academic performance. Two recent studies, with robust sample sizes, have investigated this correlation. One of the studies, led by David Creswell and other scholars from several American universities, measured the impact of sleep on the student’s grade point average (GPA). The other study, carried out by two Universities in Singapore and led by Sing Chen Yeo, investigated the relationship between the number of morning classes and students’ learning outcomes.
The research led by Creswell investigated how the duration of nightly sleep early in the semester affected students' end-of-semester grade point average. The researchers used sleep actigraphy data (collected through wrist devices - Fitbit - that monitor and record sleep patterns) and found that over 600 university students, participating in five studies from three universities, slept an average of six and a half hours per night. They found a significant incidence of negative educational attainment in students who slept less than six hours. Even when controlling for other factors, such as daytime naps or students’ grade point averages in the previous term, the average number of hours students slept per night could still help predict their last term’s grade point average. Researchers concluded that each additional hour students slept at the beginning of the semester increased their end-of-semester grade point average by 0,07 points.
The work led by Sing Chen Yeo investigated whether morning classes had lower attendance, and led to shorter sleeping periods and worse academic performance. Based on the digital records of 53 class sessions in 13 different university courses, the researchers concluded that the attendance for 8 a.m. classes was ten percentage points lower than for classes starting later in the morning. The daytime access patterns of 39 458 students, recorded in a Learning Management System, and actigraphy data from a subgroup of 181 students (aged between 18 and 25), showed that the duration of nightly sleep decreased by approximately one hour when students had to wake up earlier for their first morning classes. The records illustrate that, although different students fell asleep at the same time, some of them had to wake up earlier for their first morning classes and, therefore, slept less time.
The analysis of the academic results from a sample of 33 818 students showed that a higher number of morning classes per week was negatively correlated with students’ grade point averages. The results were worse, the more morning classes the students had to attend. Therefore, morning classes showed a cumulative negative impact on students’ performance throughout the day. The researchers concluded that fewer sleeping hours can impair students’ health and studying habits and, thereby, undermine their learning.
Both studies suggest that priority should be given to raising awareness of this correlation in higher education and implementing structured programmes that help young university students improve their sleeping hygiene. It is also worth reminding that the international guidelines recommend that young adults sleep between seven to nine hours per night to avoid daytime drowsiness, altered mood states and other health problems. According to current research, it is also time for universities to consider avoiding mandatory classes too early in the morning.
Although sleep is only one of the factors affecting students’ readiness to learn, sleep deprivation is common among many young adults, and, therefore, it becomes crucial to promote healthy habits, as proper rest during the night seems to be pivotal for good academic achievement.
Ramos, J. N., Muraro, A. P., Nogueira, P. S., Ferreira, M. G., & Rodrigues, P. R. M. (2021). Poor sleep quality, excessive daytime sleepiness and association with mental health in college students. Annals of human biology, 48(5), 382-388. https://doi.org/10.1080/03014460.2021.1983019
Taghvaee, L., & Mazandarani, A.A. (2022). Poor sleep is associated with sensation-seeking and risk behavior in college students. Sleep Science, 15(1): 249-256. https://doi.org/10.5935/1984-0063.20220024. PMID: 35273775; PMCID: PMC8889956.
Dinis, J., Bragança, M. (2018). Quality of Sleep and Depression in College Students: A Systematic Review. Sleep Science, 11(4): 290-301. https://doi.org/10.5935/1984-0063.20180045. PMID: 30746048; PMCID: PMC6361309.
Creswell, J.D., Tumminia, M.J., Price, S., Sefidgar, Y., Cohen, S., et al. (2023). Nightly sleep duration predicts grade point average in the first year of college. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120 (8). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2209123120
Yeo, S.C., Lai, C.K.Y., Tan, J. et al. (2023). Early morning university classes are associated with impaired sleep and academic performance. Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01531-x