Sleep and Academic Performance

Consistent and quality sleep is the key.

Posted Aug 29, 2020

The onset of the pandemic has been associated with a precipitous decline in sleep consistency and sleep quality (Altina et al., 2020, Sleep Standards, 2020). Fully 76.8 percent of North American adult respondents to surveys on reactions to the pandemic report that the coronavirus outbreak has adversely affected their sleep-wake schedules, with 58 percent reporting that they sleep less consistently and have lost at least one hour per night in sleep since the outbreak started. Disturbed dreaming and nightmares are frequent complaints, as is the inability to focus, concentrate, get motivated, or study during the day. Sleep is essential for these very functions (Hale, Troxel, and Buyyse, 2020; Ujma et al., 2020).

Even small amounts of sleep deprivation significantly degrade these learning-related cognitive functions. Sleep-related learning deficits, furthermore, are exacerbated when the student is challenged with self-paced and self-motivated learning requirements, as is the case in many online learning environments. Sleep measures most tightly associated with learning and memory, and thus academic performance, include sleep consistency (how likely a student is to be awake or asleep at the same time each day), sleep awakenings, disturbed dreaming and overall sleep quality, all measures relatively neglected in the earlier literature (Hershner, 2020; Fonesca et al., 2020).

Among college students, each additional day per week with sleep/dream disturbances increases the probability that students will drop a course by 14 percent and lower GPA (grade point average) approximately 0.02 points (Okano et al., 2020, Toscano-Hermosa et al., 2020). Sleep consistency, rather than absolute sleep duration, appears to be a particularly potent predictor of academic performance among college students (Okano et al., 2019; Philips et al., 2017). Okano et al. reported that sleep duration, consistency, and quality for the month and the week before an academic test correlated with better grades and accounted for nearly 25 percent of the variance in academic performance.

Philips et al. found that consistent/regular vs irregular sleepers evidence significantly higher GPAs despite reporting similar sleep durations. An increase of 10 points in their sleep consistency scale is associated with an increase of 0.1 in the GPA. Sleep inconsistency is also associated with a greater risk of sleep disorder diagnoses. Surveys show that up to a third of college students carry sleep disorder diagnoses and that these students are at greater risk for lower GPAs and school drop-out (Toscasno-Hermosa et al., 2020; Fonesca et al., 2020). Sleep disturbances (inconsistent sleep, frequent awakenings, disturbed dreaming) regardless of sleep disorder diagnosis, are associated with higher drop-out rates and lower GPA in college students. 

In addition to sleep consistency, sleep quality is strongly associated with academic performance (Toscano-Hermosa et al., 2020; Hershner, 2020). The most commonly used measure of sleep quality, the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index defines it as optimal sleep-wake schedules, sleep duration, sleep latency, number of arousals, and perceived depth of sleep. Poor sleep quality is frequently reported by college students, with minority and disadvantaged students reporting the most severe and most persistent poor sleep quality (Johnson et al., 2019).  Poor sleep quality in these students significantly predicts decreased academic performance. In summary, sleep is essential for optimal cognitive performance. Sleep consistency and self-report sleep quality are most strongly associated with academic performance. 


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