College Game Plan

8 a.m. Class Fail: Sleepy College Students Flunking Out

College students aren’t known for having fastidious sleep habits. Whether it’s because of late nights spent with friends solving the world’s problems or all-night study sessions, sleep often becomes a casualty. While many students get by with less than optimal sleep, some flunk out because they don’t get enough shuteye to succeed.

“I’ve seen students fail out of the University of Michigan because they couldn’t wake up for their 8 a.m. classes,” says Dr. Shelly Hershner, an assistant professor and director of the collegiate sleep disorders clinic at the University of Michigan.

Worse yet, sleep deficits in college students can be a recipe for disaster on the road. “We know that when you’re sleep deprived you drive similarly to being legally drunk,” Hershner says. “Add one or two alcoholic beverages on top of getting two to three hours of sleep at night and you’ve significantly increased the risk for getting in a motor vehicle accident.”

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If those aren’t good enough reasons to convince your college student to pay more attention to sleep, maybe this little scientific tidbit will: sleep is necessary for memory.

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In a study Hershner describes, a group of volunteers was asked to memorize several words. Then, half the group was told to take a 10-minute nap while the other half stayed awake. “The nap improved memory by 11 percent,” Hershner says. “That’s a whole letter grade.”

Though parents may be tempted to point fingers and say poor sleep habits result from bad behavior, it’s not that simple, Hershner says.

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“The issue is that young adults are physiologically set up to be night owls,” she explains. “Those changes start in high school. Around the onset of puberty sleep is delayed. Most teens start going to bed around 12 a.m. to 2 a.m., making it tough to wake early for morning classes.

“A lot of the problem is those 8 a.m. classes. This is not a great fit for this population. Universities tend to be thinking about space utilization and not just what is in the best interests of our students.”

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Recognizing that students’ biological clocks can’t be reset any easier than school schedules rejiggered, Hershner shares some recommendations to increase the amount of sleep students get:

1. Don’t take smart phones or iPads to bed at night.

Melatonin is one of the signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep. “But light, especially blue light, blocks melatonin, especially if it’s close to the face,” Hershner says.

2. Have a caffeine cutoff time.

“Caffeine lasts around eight hours,” Hershner says. “But a lot of students are drinking coffee and energy drinks late in the afternoon and even into the evening. You want to cut off the caffeine eight hours before you plan to go to bed.”

3. Read by lamp light rather than an electronic gadget.

“And choose something really boring and dry,” Hershner advises. “That will make it a lot easier to fall asleep.”

4. Try using amber-colored glasses if you’re reading at night.

This will block out some of the blue light, Hershner says.

5. Don’t pull all-nighters to study for exams.

“The primary function of sleep is for learning,” Hershner says. “There’s good evidence that memory and learning are related to sleep and that GPA is also related to sleep. It’s much better to sleep at least two to three hours than to pull an all-nighter.”

6. Consider taking naps during the day.

“If you can’t fall asleep until 2 a.m. and your first class is at 8 a.m. then taking a 45 minute nap could help you function during the day,” Hershner says, adding that it can also help you learn better. “So long as the nap is between 45 and 60 minutes you should be able to fall asleep at night.”

7. Take a later class if possible.

If you’re a night owl, you’re better off signing up for the later time, Hershner says.

Ultimately, small changes can make a world of difference, Hershner says. “Even going to sleep 15 minutes earlier and getting up 15 minutes later can have a big impact on how you do.”