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Why sleep quality duration and consistency all matter for students

Why sleep quality, duration and consistency all matter for students

6 min read
  • Sleep

Most of us know that sleep is really important and recognise the key role it plays in student success. However, recent research has revealed an interesting new insight into the relationship between sleep and school achievement. And there’s a caveat that we might not have expected: it’s not necessarily all about getting as much sleep as you can…

Read on to learn more about:

  • The importance of sleep
  • What the research says about sleep
  • Ways for students to improve their sleep

Why is sleep important?

The role of sleep in learning

There’s substantial evidence suggesting that sleep is crucial for learning and memory consolidation. During sleep, the brain processes and consolidates the information learned during the day. This is when short-term memories are transformed into long-term memories, which are vital for learning new concepts and skills.

The impact of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, can severely hinder a student’s performance. Lack of sleep can lead to decreased concentration, impaired memory and reduced ability to learn new things. It can also impact mood and behaviour, potentially leading to issues such as irritability, anxiety and even depression. Focusing on how students sleep and improving this will allow us help them to avoid making sleep mistakes and feel the positive effects of a good night’s sleep.

What does the research say about sleep?

Research shows that a better quality, longer duration and greater consistency of sleep has strong associations with better grades – a very important finding for students. To discuss the importance of how students sleep, let’s have a look at the three categories separately…

Sleep quality

Good-quality sleep typically means falling asleep within 30 minutes of your head hitting the pillow and sleeping soundly throughout the night. Waking up once during the night will not affect sleep quality, however more awakenings are characteristic of a bad sleep. This also includes having trouble falling asleep and restlessness during the night.

To get better quality sleep, your students may need to make some changes to their lifestyle. Avoiding caffeine for 4 to 6 hours before bedtime and introducing some more exercise into their daily routine may be beneficial. Evidence has found that those who drank coffee up to 6 hours before bed experienced a significantly worse quality of sleep.

Sleep duration

The NHS recommends that the average person should get 8 hours of sleep a night. However, this can vary depending on the person. At 5 years old, children should be sleeping for about 11 hours each night and as they get older, this number decreases. The suggested guideline for a 15-year-old is 9 hours of sleep – however most teenagers get far less than this or aren’t even aware of the number.

Duration of sleep can be a difficult thing to manage as events and activities may force your students to sleep less. If your students know they have to wake up early the next day, suggest they put away all distractions (such as their phone) and get to sleep earlier than usual. Also, encourage them to refrain from taking long daytime naps, as enticing as they may seem. Research suggests that daytime napping can confuse your students’ body clocks and lead to difficulties sleeping at night.

Sleep consistency

One night of 8-hour good quality sleep is going to feel good the next day, but the effects will not last long. This needs to occur on a consistent basis for your students to truly feel the benefits and improvements to their physical and mental health. Not getting enough sleep is associated with a whole host of negative effects such as reduced concentration, increased health risks, decreased mood and lower grades in students.

The 8-hour sleep challenge showed us that students who get 8 hours of sleep a night in the lead up to exams perform better. But the challenge also showed that, among those students who completed the challenge, those who had a more consistent sleep schedule performed better than those whose sleeping hours were more irregular.

Another study compared students with regular and irregular sleeping patterns. They found that, even though all the students had the same total sleep duration, students whose sleep-wake patterns were more regular received higher grades in their studies.

It’s therefore suggested that sticking to a sleep schedule can help your students sleep well more consistently. Encourage them to try and implement the same bedtime routine throughout the week, and even on weekends. Your students’ body clocks will adjust and soon they will fall asleep easily and wake up feeling well rested. It’s not all about getting a lot of sleep – it’s about consistently going to bed and waking up at similar times. This argues against the popular sleep myth that we can sleep less during the week and catch up over the weekend.

Help your students reach their full potential with our engaging student workshops. Study skills, motivation, resilience, and more…

Further considerations

Sleep research has used several different methods to measure sleep and its effect on academic performance. Some research measures sleep duration, others measure sleep quality. Research has also varied from measuring sleep regularity or consistency, to sleep timing, to sleep disorders.

To draw together the findings of all this research, Professor Shelley Hershner reviewed the literature. They explored the implications of using different sleep measures, and their effect on student academic performance. Here are some of the key findings…

Morning classes perform better

An interesting finding from the review was about the time of day students take their classes. In both education and business, people have proposed the benefit of having later start times, allowing students (or employees) to sleep in for longer. Research suggests that this improves well-being, decreases lateness and even reduces car accidents.

However, the review reports that students get higher grades for the classes which they have in the morning. This could be because of better teaching quality, or better student learning ability, in the morning. Other findings show that students get lower grades for classes taken later in the day, even if this later start time allows them to sleep for longer.

So, why do students get better grades in morning classes? Potentially, this may be because our daily biological clocks, called our circadian rhythm, mean that we are more alert and focused in the morning, and then tend to have a slump in the afternoon. That’s partly why we encourage students to do hard tasks earlier in the day.

Students who may have sleep disorders

Finally, the review sheds light about potential sleep problems in students who are struggling with their studies. It suggests that some students who are at risk of performing poorly at school may have a sleep disorder. What’s more, it suggests that having a sleep disorder leads to lower grades and a higher likelihood of dropping out of school. This could be because of sleepiness during the day, decreased mood, poorer general health due to lack of sleep, decreased motivation or reduced cognitive abilities. In light of this, the review recommends interventions which would allow schools to screen for sleep disorders in struggling students.

Final thoughts

So, sleep is important for academic performance. It seems that when students sleep, and how consistently, might be just as important as how much they sleep. But what does all this mean for schools?

Research highlights the importance of schools developing sleep-friendly policies and interventions. This isn’t just about encouraging students to get more sleep, but also about educating students on why sleep duration, sleep quality and sleep consistency all matter for school performance. This could also include helping students to be able to fall asleep earlier, especially for those who prefer to go to bed and wake up later.

Helping students to develop strategies that allow them to have a good, regular sleeping pattern can ensure that they are awake and ready to go for their day ahead at school.

Our education workshops can help you get started on providing your students with sleep knowledge and tips. If this is something your school might be interested in, please do get in touch.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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