Sacrificing sleep could sacrifice grades

Special Section: Education / Getting Smarter


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Mike Barry, a University of Pittsburgh engineering senior, was happy last fall to have a co-op job at a small manufacturing company in Leetsdale.

Only trouble was, his work hours and sleep schedule were at war.

He needed to leave Oakland at 7:15 a.m. to get to his job on time. Yet at night, he would be up as late as 3 or 4 a.m., a sleep-starved routine broken only by the weekends.

"It was brutal," he said. "On Fridays, I would come home from work, pass out for three hours, wake up and go out and then sleep until 1 in the afternoon, then start the whole process over."

He was by no means yawning alone.

Sleep is a precious campus commodity, but it's often the first item surrendered by students whose body clocks and overbooked schedules keep them up all hours -- either for caffeine-jagged study sessions or simply to hang out.

Walk on any campus and you'll hear the war stories: Three hours a night, two hours a night, or even less, sometimes for days on end.

The problem with this time-honored practice, say researchers, is that it tends to be counterproductive as far as learning is concerned.

Along with a range of other psychological problems like mood swings and depression, too little sleep impacts mental processes, including one's ability to focus and to memorize.

"If you're sleep deprived, you're not going to absorb the information as well as if you were rested," said William Kohler, a pediatrician and neurologist who is medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute.

He said every individual is different. Some can exist on five or so hours of rest and perform satisfactorily, while others need 10 or 11 hours. But generally speaking, most adolescents and young adults -- the age groups associated with traditional college students -- need eight to nine hours of rest to function at their best, Dr. Kohler said.

Many on campus usually don't come close.

It's not as if colleges can impose a lights-out policy, nor are they likely to warn students about sleep deprivation by plastering campus buildings with signs like those used in campaigns to discourage binge drinking. Still, say experts, sleep loss is a drag on performance that does not get the attention it deserves.

"We should be hearing a lot more about that than we do," Dr. Kohler said.

There is a connection between interrupted sleep and memorization, said Leila K. Gozal, a pediatric sleep medicine physician and researcher at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital.

Her research has found that children with obstructive sleep apnea took longer to memorize material and "showed less ability to remember exactly what they learned" the next morning than did peers with uninterrupted sleep, she said.

The crush of activities facing college-age adults -- social and academic -- are partly why they do not sleep enough, Dr. Gozal said. But perhaps a more significant reason for the sleep loss, she said, is their circadian rhythms, an internal biological cycle that regulates sleep.

In teens and young adults, the cycle is often moved back.

"They wake up later in the day, and they go to sleep later into the night," she said. "They need more sleep in the morning because they didn't get enough at night."

After a while, sleep deprivation becomes their norm. Working at computer screens and playing video games can exacerbate the tendency to stay up late.

Hahna Alexander, 19, a sophomore mechanical engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University, said many on her campus don't start studying until 10 p.m, 11 p.m. or later, "because that's when you have the time."

Her days are filled with classes. Her evenings and other times are booked with extracurricular activities, from her sorority's community service projects to Society of Women Engineers meetings to buggy races, a Carnegie Mellon tradition which requires Ms. Alexander and her teammates to be up at 4 a.m. on weekends for five-hour practice sessions.

People are "really passionate" about these activities, said Ms. Alexander, from Ithaca, N.Y. "You're not going to give them up because it's going to help your career; it helps your major. It's something you're interested in."

So sleep gets shunted aside.

Though she sometimes toughs it out on four hours of sleep, Ms. Alexander said she generally cannot handle the awake-a-thons that some peers endure.

"Personally, I can't function on a lot of caffeine and energy drinks. I get sick," she said. "I have to get six or seven hours of sleep to pay attention to lectures and not fall asleep."

Dr. Kohler and others say students should arrange class schedules to fit their biological rhythms. Translation: If you look like a zombie at 8 a.m., avoid taking classes at that time.

Penn State University went one better.

Several years back, it began an effort to reduce the number of 8 a.m. classes it offers, a bow to the nocturnal tendencies of young adults that was part of a push to make services on Penn State's campuses more student centered.

Penn State President Graham Spanier, who championed the move, said classes at that time often are poorly attended and are not so conducive to learning, given students' body clocks. Dr. Spanier said that as a student, he, too, avoided them:

"I usually slept four to five hours a night in college, going to bed about 4 a.m. and always trying to have my first class at 10 a.m. or later," he said. "I remember being tired much of the time.

"I wish I could say it was because I was studying 20 hours a day, but in part it was because I was very active in university activities," he said. "Fortunately, I don't think it hurt me on exams, but sleep science would suggest that one doesn't perform optimally in a state of fatigue."

Sometimes students push themselves to the brink of collapse.

Mr. Barry recalled how, earlier in his campus career, a peer who had pulled three consecutive all-nighters dozed off in front of him in mid-conversation.

"I was talking to him in someone else's room, and he would kind of disappear for a while and then wake up," Mr. Barry said. "His eyes were black. He looked horrible."

At Allegheny College, sleep is a concern among at least 10 percent of students seen in the campus health center and as much as 20 percent of those seen in the counseling center, said Jacquelyn Kondrot, associate dean of students for wellness education.

Staff members work one-on-one with students to lessen the problem, be it a roommate who is too noisy or a case in which a student has spread himself too thin and needs to cut back on time commitments.

All-nighters can be deceiving, making students "feel like they're doing more work than they actually are because they're doing it in an extreme way," said Allegheny senior Sonja DeJong, 22, a community health education major from Hamilton, Mass.

She, too, went sleep-deprived her freshman year, staying up into the early morning hours for study sessions that she remembers were not always efficient. Now she focuses on doing the work but getting eight hours of sleep a night.

"I'm much more focused in class," she said.


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. First Published February 9, 2010 5:00 AM


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