Sleeping vs Studying – The everyday dilemma
It is a widely accepted fact that sleep has a great influence on our daily life, and everyone who has tried to pull an all-nighter knows that the following day they’ll suffer the consequences. College students, who are often overwhelmed by balancing their social and academic lives, regularly dismiss their sleep routine. This has an obvious effect on their academic performance and overall well-being, but how does it actually impact them?
What impacts college students' sleep schedules?
Firstly, it is important to define the term sleep hygiene. This refers to all behaviours and habits related to quality sleep, that can be either harmful or beneficial. Generally speaking, this can include the scheduling and environment of sleep time, the use of substances that affect sleep (caffeine and other stimulants, and alcohol, for example), and other activities that can negatively affect sleep. Irregular class schedules, late-night socializing and early morning responsibilities are some of the factors that create poor sleep hygiene.
Other important factors are:
Alcohol – Even though it can be used to fall asleep faster, it decreases the quality of sleep
Caffeine and other stimulants – They are used to stay awake for longer, but make it harder to sleep without interruptions
Technology – Dealing with electronic devices before bedtime creates an unnatural environment of lights and sounds that affect the body’s natural sleep mechanisms
Sleep Disorders – Some biological factors prevent a good night’s sleep, such as sleep apnea and insomnia
“Go to bed early, tomorrow you have a test”
It is a common perspective that the night before an evaluation one should have a good night’s sleep to have a good performance. However, the previous night is not as important as it is often thought.
A study conducted between June and September 2015 tried to understand the effect of a night of sleep deprivation on the cognitive and physical performance of college students. This was a randomized study and students were randomly allocated to a control group – those who maintained their sleep regimen – or to the test group – those who were not supposed to sleep during the night and had to fill out a form every 45 minutes to ensure they were awake. Moreover, participants did not know what the expected outcome was and had to perform certain tests that evaluated reaction time, executive function, working memory, and cardiopulmonary function.
In terms of cognitive function, the study found that there were no significant differences between the two groups, mainly in the test evaluating memory and visual memory. However, there were significant effects when filtering efficiency after total sleep deprivation. Whilst analyzing the time taken to complete the tasks and the number of mistakes made, it was found that there were no increases in the variables studied. Compared to other studies involving older participants, we can infer that the younger population is more effective at dealing with acute sleep deprivation. Since working memory and executive function are important to the academic achievements of college students, this study concluded that a night of sleep deprivation was not detrimental to students’ cognitive ability. It is to accentuate that this study only evaluated some aspects of cognitive functioning, and it may be interesting to study other variables.
As for the physical function, the study did find that reaction time increased for the sleep-deprived group, which is of particular interest to the large proportion of student-athletes. One of most concerning consequence is the impact it has on driving, as it was found that an “all-nighter” had the same effects on driving as a level of 0.1% of blood alcohol concentration. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to trigger sympathetic activity (responsible for responding to dangers or stressful situations), which means that continuous periods of sleep deprivation, for example, an exam or project deadline, may cause hypertension or an inappropriate response to intense exercise.
Notwithstanding, sleeping habits do improve the performance of students during moments of evaluation. However, these habits need to be consistent and precede the evaluation one month or week for it to have an impact.
Sleep problems have various impacts on one’s life and have not only been associated with deficits in attention and academic performance, but also with poorer health and drowsy driving. ln order to change the student's behavior towards sleep, there was an experimental course on sleep management, which resulted in better sleep quality for the students but not better sleep patterns. Knowing how to approach sleep more healthily may be helpful, but, at the end of the day, students still need more time to complete assignments and for social life and end up sacrificing sleep. This way, and according to the study mentioned above, it is imperative for students to understand that when it comes to staying up late, it ends up being more important to sleep well while the study material is being taught than the night before the exam.
Written by: Margarida Catarino & Beatriz Pedro