For many college students sleep deficiency is a routinely accepted part of higher education. This is concerning; we know that sleep deficiency exerts a significant toll on some students’ physical and emotional health, and decreases their capacity for critical academic skills including learning, memory, and problem solving. Research clearly demonstrates the relationship between sleep deficiency in students and risk-taking behaviours such as drinking and driving, mental health conditions including suicidality, depression, and anxiety, decreased self-efficacy, substance misuse, binge drinking and excessive caffeine consumption, smoking and high rates of social media use. Sleep deficiency in children and adolescents is concerning to the point that the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) labelled it a priority public health problem. In Canada, as many as 70% of high school students may achieve less than the recommended amount of sleep for their age.
Many of these young people bring poor sleep habits and pre-existing sleep disorders (such as untreated sleep apnoea) from adolescence into their pursuit of higher education. Compounding these pre-existing factors, for some students, there are new social and financial pressures, increased anxiety, and sleep-disruptive living environments. In higher education, students will sacrifice sleep in pursuit of higher grades and academic achievement, however, even when they believe that this decision ultimately undermines their ability to achieve academic success.
Gomes et al.’s study of over 1600 high-school students found that self-reported sleep quality and frequency of sufficient sleep was a significant predictor of end-of-semester grades. Studies with similar findings, illustrating the relationship between sufficient restorative sleep and academic achievement, are growing. If there is a similar link between sleep quality and academic performance among college students, then sleep forms a significant part of what determines whether someone succeeds or fails at college.
It is possible that identifying students’ practices and preferences will help in developing targeted approaches to this problem. If improving sleep quality would help students to gain more from their college experience, laying the foundation for prosperous careers and happy lives, then the matter deserves our utmost attention. Action, based on sound evidence and supported by students’ existing preferred habits and valued sources of information, would then be critical if students are to derive the maximum benefit from the significant financial, personal, and social resource investment made at a personal and social level in pursuing higher education.
However, other studies have raised questions about the link between sleep and performance at the college level. Recent pilot studies have failed to fully duplicate the substantial performance gains achieved when adolescents ensure they obtain adequate sleep among college students who improve their sleep quality. To account for this, it has been suggested that neurological development is at a pivotal stage during adolescence, and significant sleep disruption at this age may cause permanent deficits that are impossible to rectify at a later stage of development. Although improving sleep quality does tend to positively impact academic performance among high school students, it therefore remains to be seen whether this is the case among college students. In order to set sensible academic policies, legislators and school administrators would benefit if further research was conducted on the effects of improved sleep quality on academic performance in college. While it seems plausible that efforts to improve sleep quality among college students will be beneficial towards them, we need to know why exactly we are taking these steps: is it to improve academic performance, or just to improve health and well-being?
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