Does Sleep Deprivation Affect College Student Performance?

It’s a pretty common scene: midterms week on campus, and students are lined up at tables scattered throughout the library well after they should be in bed. But pressure is high, and there’s no time for sleep. That’s the college way, right? “For every credit hour a student takes, they are expected to spend three hours studying […]

BY Terri Williams

Does Sleep Deprivation Affect College Student Performance?

It’s a pretty common scene: midterms week on campus, and students are lined up at tables scattered throughout the library well after they should be in bed. But pressure is high, and there’s no time for sleep. That’s the college way, right?

“For every credit hour a student takes, they are expected to spend three hours studying on their own: if the average student takes 13 credit hours for a semester, that’s about 39 hours a week spent studying,” says Joyia Williams, a student at the University of Montevallo in Alabama.

Williams says that’s nearly the equivalent of a full-time job, and she adds that students are supposed to take an active role in the school community, in addition to their individual emotional and social needs, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleeping.

As a result, Williams, who attends school on an academic scholarship, says it’s rare for her to sleep 8 hours. “Outside of class I am a math tutor, a peer coach, and a McNair scholar; when combined with 16 credit hours’ worth of studying, observation hours for my major (elementary education), exercising, and socializing, I have a full day.”

While her situation is not unusual, it’s one that sleep experts are hoping to reverse.

Most students say they need more sleep

“Insufficient sleep is a public health issue,” declared the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reports of dozing off while driving or operating industrial equipment include some of the worst accidents in recent history: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill are just a few of the highly-publicized catastrophes related to sleep deprivation.

A recent survey reveals that college students consider sleep to be an important factor in their success – but admit that they’re not sleeping as much as they should.

Selected results from the Chegg College Student Sleep Survey are as follows:

When asked if they thought students who do better in school “probably” get more sleep?

38% Agree
21% Strongly agree


When asked to describe themselves as students, the responses were:

65% I strive to do my best every time
23% I must get an “A”
11% I am content as long as I get a passing grade
2% Grades aren’t important to me


And when asked how many hours they would like to sleep on a school night versus how many hours they actually sleep on a typical school night:

84% Would like to sleep 8 hours or more But 16% Sleep 8 hours or more
16% Would like to sleep 5 to 7 hours 79% Sleep 5 to 7 hours
0% Would like to less than 5 hours 5% Sleep less than 5 hours


That’s in line with what Williams said about her college experience so far.

“I do agree that I should get more sleep,” she says, “but to fit all of these activities into one day, I have to keep putting off sleep.”

Recent research may support her actions. A Deloitte report reveals that volunteering can boost a candidate’s job prospects. And since verbal communication and teamwork are the most important skills for job candidates, the benefits of socializing are obvious.

In addition, it doesn’t appear that Williams has suffered academically, and consistently has a 4.0 GPA, and her friends, who sleep even less, also maintain A-B averages.

So what’s keeping college students from sleeping? Below are the top survey responses:

54% I have too much homework
51% I spend too much time online doing non-school-related activities
49% I procrastinate too much on school work
46% I worry about school/grades
44% I spend too much time online doing school-related work
44% I worry about personal things (friends, family, etc.)
27% I don’t need much sleep/I can’t sleep
25% I spend too much time watching TV
22% I spend too much time socializing
19% I have too many extracurricular activities


But experts say it’s important for college students to get a sufficient amount of sleep on a regular basis, and failing to do so produces several negative side effects.

Emotional and cognitive reasons why sleep is important

Tim Bono, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and lecturer in Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has spent years tracking the sleep habits of Wash U freshmen. He tells GoodCall that students may feel that they’re too busy to sleep because they don’t understand the connection between sleep and emotional health/cognitive functioning.

“College by its very nature can be an emotionally turbulent time, and students are also having to consolidate a lot of information both from material they learn in their classes as well as from the life lessons that accompany being on their own and in a new environment,” Bono says.

However, he explains that the brain is actually working when students are asleep.

“Neural circuits connecting key brain regions become strengthened, which positions us for better functioning the next day, especially with regard to our cognitive and emotional well-being,” he says.

As a result, the level or happiness or optimism a person experiences may be directly related to the quantity of their sleep.

“A number of studies have shown that a full night’s rest translates to higher ratings of happiness, enthusiasm, and energy, and lower ratings of anger, nervousness, or disappointment throughout a college student’s day,” Bono says.

Sleeping for a sufficient amount of time lowers the brain’s levels of amygdala activity.

“This is the part of the brain that alerts us when something fearful or anxiety-provoking is in our surrounding area,” Bono says. “When the amygdala becomes too active, we start interpreting even harmless things as potential threats, and we also become more likely to interpret ambiguous situations as more upsetting than they actually are.”

Without sufficient sleep, people are more likely to be anxious and overreact, Bono says. In addition, inadequate sleep leads to a cognitive decline, and Bono warns that in this state, it is more difficult to concentrate and learn new material.

Other problems caused by insufficient sleep

In addition to the detrimental cognitive and emotional effects of being sleep-deprived, students may experience other negative effects.

Dr. Carolyn Dean is a sleep expert, and she tells GoodCall that a lack of sleep causes a litany of problems.

“Research has shown that people who get about six or less hours of sleep a night have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins than those who get more sleep,” Dean says.

She explains that low-grade chronic inflammation can cause a range of illnesses including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even premature aging. And if that’s not enough, Dean says that insufficient sleep can increase an individual’s appetite and hinder weight loss efforts.

“When you are tired, the hormones affecting appetite kick in and you feel more hungry,” she says.

Williams admits that when she finally gets into bed, she often spends another 30 minutes on her iPad. While some people may see this as a waste of time, Williams explains, “There is so much to do every day that it’s really easy to get burned out, and being online actually serves as a form of stress relief.”

But, she says, “I think we’re doing okay; we’re trying the best we can. If nothing else, the weekends are a good way to catch up on lost sleep.”

Sleep rain checks?

But is it really possible to catch up on lost sleep at a later date?

According to Bono, “Even though someone who gets 4 hours of sleep one night and 10 hours the next is getting the same amount as another who sleeps 7 hours both nights, it’s the second person who is going to be better off.”

In fact, he says that irregular sleep habits can disrupt the body’s natural (circadian) rhythm – and could eventually cause insomnia.

How to develop better sleeping habits

Dr. Ann M. Romaker, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells GoodCall that there are several things students can do to try to increase the amount of time they sleep.

“Setting a cut-off time for studying – and then sticking to it – is helpful, as is keeping that schedule regularly. That way, the student doesn’t end up leaving things until the last minute and stay up studying until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. each night.”

She also recommends that students try to unwind for 60 to 90 minutes before they get into bed.

While exercising is a healthy habit, Romaker warns against exercising within 4 hours before bedtime.

“This helps decrease adrenaline levels and promotes sleep.”

And she says students should start limiting caffeine intake in the afternoon hours, “and avoid alcohol – it helps people fall asleep initially, but sleep the last half of the night is poor, and alcohol impairs memory all on its own.”

Some students may experience insomnia because they’re stressing over a test that will be administered the next day. Romaker says, “There are several ways to approach this, such as monitored relaxation training – there are some good DVDs available in book stores and/or the library – yoga, meditation, and, for some, even using a prescription hypnotic on the nights before tests, depending on the severity of the problem.”

And Dean adds the following advice, “Sleeping near or next to electrical appliances and electro-magnetic radiation in the bedroom is another factor to be aware of that makes falling asleep and staying asleep more difficult.” She advises students not to sleep near their cellphone, TV, computer, or other devices.

Room temperature is another factor, and according to Dean, “A temperature of 68 degrees is ideal, any warmer and it can disrupt sleep and make it harder to fall asleep.”