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Sleep Deprivation and College Students

Osagie Izevbigie

University of Texas at El Paso


Sleep deprivation is highly prevalent among college students. Its effects on cognitive

performances are unknown to students because they are only beginning to be comprehended

from a clinical and technical point of view. These effects result in lower grade point averages,

increased risk of academic failure, compromised learning, impaired mood, and increased risk of

motor vehicle accidents. Insufficient sleep also leads to slow response speed and increased

erraticism and unevenness in performance, especially for simple measures of alertness, vigilance,

and attention. Society’s pressures to succeed is a major cause of sleep deprivation, which leads to

many illnesses and decrease in academic success in college students. However, students continue

to do this because they do not realize the long-term consequences. Factors such as “having a

job,” is another major cause of sleep deprivation in students. Students get very little amount of

sleep because they must work to meet up with the cost of their tuition, and other needs. Some

students have it all provided for them and still do not get enough sleep because of social

influences and peer pressure.

Sleep Deprivation and College Students


The college experience is of significant value, because students are provided with an

organized environment in which they can gain skills, knowledge, and freedom to forge their own

path, become employed, and contribute to society (Hershner & Chervin, 2014). However, this

experience comes at a huge cost; considering the rising cost of tuition leading to student’s large

debt, consequently, it is imperative that the years spent in college be as effective as possible. A

possible problem to maximizing and increasing success in college is the high prevalence of sleep

deprivation among college students. Sleep deprivation is caused by several reasons and have

many negative consequences, it is often termed acute sleep deprivation or chronic partial sleep

deprivation. For students, acute sleep deprivation may be termed “pulling an all-nighter”,

meaning a person does not sleep for 24 hours or longer (Pilcher & Walters, 1997). More

characteristically, sleep deprivation consists of chronic partial sleep deprivation, where a student

obtains some, but not adequate sleep (Pilcher & Walters, 1997). Several studies have shown that

students who gets good amount of sleep have better grades, and do better academically compared

to students who are sleep deprived. The studies further proved sleep deprived students found it

difficult to retain information and recollect what was taught.

Sleep deprivation negatively affects learning, memory, performance and the Grade Point

Averages (GPA) of college students. It also causes severe problems with cognition and the

body’s visceral organs, but with the implementation of health promotional programs, educational

campaign, and sleep educational information, this problem can be solved.

Sleep deprivation can be defined as not gaining sufficient or satisfactory sleep. Excessive

daytime sleepiness, fatigue, clumsiness, and weight gain or loss are all noticeable effects of sleep

deprivation. In addition, being sleep-deprived immensely affects both the brain and cognitive

functions. In the article “Sleep Deprivation: Consequences for Students” by Julie King

Marhefka, she discusses the effects of lack of sleep as being dangerous, unhealthy, and

detrimental. Marhefka defines sleep deprivation as “Daytime sleepiness due to poor sleep quality

affects students’ cognitive functioning by reducing academic achievement and learning, as well

as impairing behavioral performance.” Students who do not get enough sleep are tired

throughout the day, their ability to process information and learn to their best ability is

compromised. Lack of sleep will not only affect the brain and cognitive function, it will also

affect the immune system and make one prone to illnesses. This implies that, in an active college

campus, sleep deprived students are constantly putting themselves at risk for diseases. If students

do develop diseases or illnesses which are inherent in sleep deprivation, it can severely affect

their education (Marhefka, 2011).

Regulation of Normal Sleep

Going late to sleep and waking up before getting sufficient sleep is the reason many

college students are sleep deprived. Two primary processes govern how much sleep is obtained,

the homeostatic sleep drive and the circadian rhythm (Goel et al., 2009). The circadian system

helps to regulate sleep/wake cycles and hormonal secretions while the homeostatic sleep drive

increases the need for sleep as the period of wakefulness lengthens (Goel et al., 2009). Most

health organizations endorse and advocate for 7 to 8 hours of sleep for an average adult, but there

is no standardized number. The amount of sleep a person needs varies on the individual and

activities they indulge in. The quality of sleep that one receives depends on two factors; basal
sleep and sleep debt (National Sleep Foundation, 2014). Basal sleep is the amount of sleep a

body requires on a regular basis for optimum sleep, while Sleep debt is the accrued sleep that is

lost to weak sleep behaviors, illness, environmental factors, or other causes, and it leads to

reduced sleep quality (National Sleep Foundation, 2014). Sleep quality is just as important as

sleep quantity, but they both work concurrently (Morgenthaler, 2014).

Learning and Memory

Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep schedules have a lot of unintentional repercussions, one of

which is to negatively influence learning, memory, and performance.

Certain studies investigated the interaction of sleep, memory, and learning using

scenarios of specific memory tasks and then alter subject’s sleep pattern or duration to determine

the impact that sleep had on the subject’s performance. Results from these studies were

conclusive, and revealed that sleep is essential to optimal performance. According to

Morgenthaler (2014), sleep deprived adults are not only affecting their capacity for critical

thinking, those who do not meet sleep requirements also have a higher risk of mortality.

Inadequate Sleep Hygiene and Causes of Sleep Deprivation

As earlier stated, a major cause of sleep deprivation in students is because they go to bed

late and wake up early. This happens for multiple reasons including physiologic and behavioral.

Poor sleep behavior which stems out from poor sleep hygiene can also lead to sleep deprivation

(Colten et al., 2006). Contrarily, it is recommended that students indulge in good sleep hygiene

which includes a regular sleep–wake schedule, sleeping in a quiet environment, and keeping

away from the use of caffeine and stimulating activities before bed (Colten et al., 2006).

Substances are not the only aspect of inadequate sleep hygiene, as the constant use of technology

(mobile phones, computers, and tablets) before bed may also adversely affect sleep (Hershner &
Chervin, 2014). Students and young adults are frequently being exposed to light by the use of

their handheld devices and computers for assignments and research purposes; this is one of the

contributing factors that explains why students and young adults are affected by technology use

before bed (CDC, 2012). Exposure to light through technology sources such as computers,

tablets, and cellphones has a huge impact on sleep, because melatonin secretion is suppressed;

melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland and helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm (the

body’s natural sleep cycle clock) (CDC, 2012). It can easily be deduced that students using

stimulating technology prior to bedtime are only harming their health and subsequently affecting

their ability to perform well academically and in other activities. According to the CDC (2012),

the use of substances such as alcohol, caffeine and energy drinks, stimulants, and technology will

negatively affect sleep hygiene.

Without adequate sleep hygiene, students may find themselves with worse health

consequences that encourage sleep deprivation. A study implemented with college students

showed that 33% of sleep deprived students took longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, and 43%

of the students studied also reported prematurely waking up more than once on a nightly basis

(Forquer et al, 2008). Some people may have the understanding that college students have

different sleep hygiene depending on their classification, class standing, and majors. Though it

may be true that some majors have more cumbersome and different amount of work load,

Forquer et al. (2008) found that there are no differences between freshman, sophomores, juniors,

seniors, and graduate students for the time to fall asleep, number of premature waking per night,

and total hours of sleep per night.

According to Hershner & Chervin (2014), the table below shows the challenges to good sleep

hygiene in college students.

Technology Substances College scheduling and
TV, computer, or video Caffeine and energy drinks Variable class schedules from
games before bed day to day
Cell phones on overnight Alcohol use Late night socializing
Frequent exposure to light Stimulant use Early or late obligations
before bed

Sleep deprivation is often voluntary within the college student population, especially

during times of high stress like examination periods; these patterns of sleep loss can result in 24

to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, which often results in students overreacting to their lack of

sleep by increasing the hours of sleep over the weekend (Pilcher & Walters, 1997).

Grade Point Average (GPA) and Academic Performance

Despite increasing proof of the associations between sleep, learning, and memory, a

direct connection between learning and GPA has not yet been established. A student’s GPA

involves a complex interaction between the student and their environment, intelligence,

motivation, work ethic, personality, socioeconomic status, health problems, current and past

school systems, course load, academic program, and test-taking abilities (Curcio, Ferrara, & De

Gennaro, 2006).

A recent study conducted with first year college students showed evidence that low

amount of sleep correlates with negative academic performance (Curcio, Ferrara, & De Gennaro,

2006). Students in the study were made to take surveys and undergo interviews, in addition, their

official grades showed that students with lower performance came from students getting low

amounts of sleep (Curcio, Ferrara, & De Gennaro, 2006). The study concluded that for each

hour of delay in reported sleep time during the week, predicted GPAs could decrease by 0.13 on

a scale of 0–4 (Curcio, Ferrara, & De Gennaro, 2006). Essentially, if students would get more

sleep they would theoretically be more likely to earn better grades. The study is consistent and in
line with most research on sleep deprivation. Basically, poor sleep hygiene is a big indicator of

sleep deprivation, which influences poor academic performance.

The culture of sleep in the college environment is not conducive for adequate amounts

of sleep. Students have hectic, cumbersome schedules, and many expectations that require a lot

of time and energy. Students commonly engage in studying all night and taking caffeinated

products as part of the need to have good grades, and to simply get by without falling behind.

Students need discipline and good time management skills to keep themselves from falling into

negative sleep habits cycle. The need to have a balanced schedule is not the only factor in the

college atmosphere that contributes to sleep deprivation. Campus activities that offer 24-hour

services are other cultural and environmental contributions to sleep deprivation on the college

campus. Almost on a weekly basis, students receive emails of approved programs scheduled to

take place on campus, which most students see as an opportunity to socialize with friends. These

activities are promoting the idea that it is acceptable for students to stay up late (past 12am)

during times of heavy studying. These programs create an environment that promotes the idea of

sleep deprivation to college students and make it a norm on campus. These programs are meant

to support students, but they technically do not support healthy sleep hygiene and optimal

academic ideals and goals.

Solving the Problem of Sleep Deprivation

To effectively solve the problem of sleep deprivation among college students, health

promotion programs on the effects of sleep deprivation needs to be integrated within the college

student population. The Curcio, Ferrara, & De Gennaro (2006) study used GPAs to provide

information about students’ academic performance because GPA calculations are known to

express learning abilities. Other methods that can be used to test the indicators of sleep
deprivation is utilizing achievement tests to measure individuals cognitive and memory ability in

relation to the amount of sleep they receive (Forquer et al, 2008). The indicators are important in

health interventions because they help understand the population’s needs.

Educational campaign with a focus on sleep hygiene, and sleep educational information

showing earlier bedtime, longer sleep duration, and improved sleep quality should be published

on school newspaper (Curcio, Ferrara, & De Gennaro, 2006). In another study, a two-credit, 18-

week course included group discussion, lectures, and self-evaluation, the topics included

circadian rhythms, sleep hygiene, muscle relaxation, and public sleep education; at the end of the

study, participants had improved sleep quality over the semester (Curcio, Ferrara, & De

Gennaro, 2006). The Sleep Treatment and Education Program (STEPS) consisted of a 30-minute

oral presentation and handouts on various aspects of sleep, and were provided to students

attending introductory psychology classes. Six weeks later, participants showed improved sleep

quality and sleep hygiene (Curcio, Ferrara, & De Gennaro, 2006).

Conclusively, students are participating in poor sleep habits and are not aware of the

damaging effects sleep loss has on their health and their academic performance. Students are

more likely to get less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night if they take part in an all-nighter to

study. They are also less likely to sleep if they use cellphones, tablets, and computers. Students

should also avoid using sleep prevention products such as caffeinated drinks and alcohol.

Students are more likely to sleep during the weekends and be sleep deprived during the

weekdays. Factors such as a student’s employment impacts their ability to get the recommend

amount of sleep. It is advisable that students learn time management skills to guide them towards

better sleep habits. Universities should offer students the resources to learn and practice these
time management skills, because the effect of sleep loss on students is damaging to their overall

health and wellness in addition to academics.


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