Get some sleep

Midterms are next week, which means the stress levels in my classes are fairly high. I can see it in their faces, in the way they yawn when I talk about the intricacies of anapestic trimeter or the subtle undertones of religiosity in MoliƩre. Okay, so they'd be yawning at that anyway, but they do look more physically tired than at other times in the term, and it's normal--the semester is a grind, and in the fall, unlike the spring, the only break we get is if a hurricane sweeps through, at least until Thanksgiving, which is so near the end of the term that it causes as many problems as it solves.

I bring this up because I read this article in New York magazine a couple of days ago on the issue of sleep on cognitive abilities, and while the basic idea didn't really surprise me--well-rested people think more clearly than people who are tired--the difference just one hour of sleep per night can make did.

Sadeh needn’t have worried. The effect was indeed measurable—and sizable. The performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the normal gap between a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader. Which is another way of saying that a slightly sleepy sixth-grader will perform in class like a mere fourth-grader. “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,” Sadeh explains.

Sadeh’s findings are consistent with other researchers’ work, all of which points to the large academic consequences of small sleep differences. Dr. Monique LeBourgeois of Brown University studies how sleep affects pre-kindergartners. Virtually all young children are allowed to stay up late on Fridays and Saturdays. Yet she’s discovered that the sleep-shift factor alone is correlated with performance on a standardized school-readiness test. Every hour of weekend shift costs students seven points on the test. Dr. Paul Suratt of the University of Virginia studied the impact of sleep problems on vocabulary-test scores of elementary-school students. He also found a seven-point reduction in scores. Seven points, Suratt notes, is significant: “Sleep disorders can impair children’s I.Q.’s as much as lead exposure.”

Every study done shows a similar connection between sleep and school grades—from a study of second- and third-graders in Chappaqua to a study of eighth-graders in Chicago. The correlations really spike in high school, because that’s when there’s a steep drop-off in kids’ sleep. Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota surveyed more than 7,000 high schoolers in Minnesota about their sleep habits and grades. Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged eleven more minutes than the C’s, and the C’s had ten more minutes than the D’s. Wahlstrom’s data was an almost perfect replication of results from an earlier study of more than 3,000 Rhode Island high schoolers by Brown’s Mary Carskadon. Certainly, these are averages, but the consistency of the two studies stands out. Every fifteen minutes counts.

That's a big difference. The article is focusing on kids, but it's important to remember that most college students aren't fully adults yet, despite their voting rights and all. Their bodies are still growing and adjusting, and they're probably doing with less sleep than they've ever done before, while we're asking them to do more difficult work than ever before.

I only focused on this part of the article because I'm supposed to be working on my midterms right now and I'm not, but there's some other, perhaps more disturbing stuff in there--the way some parents schedule their kids at very early ages borders, I think, on child abuse, and there's some powerful examples of that in this story. But in the meantime, if you're teaching teens and young adults and they have a test coming up, tell them that they need to study, but that they really need to get a full night's sleep.

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