Sleep. Who needs it? College places a heavy burden on students’ time management between classes and homework, and whatever is left is usually allocated to extracurricular activities or procrastinating on the aforementioned homework.
It only takes a walk past Hale Library at 1 in the morning to see how heavily our days get stuffed. Sleep is usually our last priority, and this can have disastrous consequences.
Having a good sleep schedule may, in fact, be one of the most important things you can do to help yourself get those better grades, not to mention help you feel more awake and help keep your body in optimal shape. A multitude of studies out there demonstrate that better sleep schedules equal higher GPAs.
A June 2009 Time Magazine article by Alice Park called “Larks and Owls: How Sleep Habits Affect Grades” details the different kinds of students there are and how their sleeping habits affect their grades. The study was done on 89 students at Hendrix College.
“Larks” was the term given to students who went to bed early, while those who stayed up late were termed “owls.” The study essentially found that larks’ average GPA was 3.18, while owls’ GPA came in at a 2.84.
This shows that sleep has a positive correlation with your grades, given similar study habits. It is important to get enough sleep during the school week, especially while you are learning.
According to a 2008 Harvard study entitled “Sleep and Memory,” conducted by Dr. Robert Stickgold, there are three distinct brain processes that are involved when the brain is trying to learn. Acquisition is the process through which the brain receives various forms of stimuli (usually auditory and visual in the classroom environment) and stores this information.
Next is consolidation, where the brain takes that information and makes connections to it, strengthening it. This process also makes the memory more stable and puts true meaning behind it. Finally is recall, the most important step to acing that test. This is when the brain uses the pathways it consolidated to get back to the information it stored.
Having a poor sleep schedule negatively impacts all of these. If you don’t sleep well and are dozing off in class, that is obviously going to affect the acquisition of the material being presented to you. Recall is the same way. This is shown in popular culture all the time, when a student is dozing off in class, and the teacher calls on him and he has no idea how to answer because he wasn’t receiving any of the input that his brain needed to learn the material. Consolidation is a trickier business than these first two processes. There is nothing obvious to see how lack of sleep effects it.
Stickgold and Walker, two Ph.D.-level researchers, have done several studies over the connection of lack of sleep and consolidation and have found that when we learn information, the next night’s sleep is the most important to forming connections. In other words, when we learn something our brain makes all the connections, strengthening and stabilizing the memory during the next night of sleep.
This also means that “all-nighters” are not nearly as effective as studying during the day, and just sleeping and letting your mind do the consolidating that night. When you pull an all-nighter, your brain never gets a real chance of taking what you learned and making it more permanent in your brain.
Balance would have to be the key word here. Sleep is a huge a part of that balance. As a commonly repeated saying goes: Good sleep, good social life, good grades, you can only pick two. This isn’t necessarily true, but it is easy to slip into the lifestyle of only focusing on two. Most college students would agree that it is hard to balance out college life, but you just have to get your priorities straight.
A good balance requires discipline; for example, knowing when to say that it is time for bed despite how good of a conversation you are having with your buddies. If you want good grades then you have to be willing to make sacrifices, even if it means going to bed just a little bit earlier.
Alex Ondracek is a junior in biology. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.