The sleep issue most people overlook—that can affect students' grades

A new study published in Scientific Reports showed that students who do not have a consistent sleeping schedule are more likely to receive lower grades, writes Victoria Knight for CNN.

The study divided 61 Harvard University student participants into two groups: regular and irregular sleepers. Regular sleepers were students who went to bed and woke up at the same time every day. Irregular sleepers were students who had spontaneous sleeping habits.

There was no difference in the total amount of time that each group slept.

Researchers gave each student a score from 0 to 100, based on the irregularity of their sleeping patterns. The more irregular a student's sleeping patterns, the lower the index score they received. It turned out that for every 10-point increase in regularity, there was a 0.10 increase in the student's grade point average.

The decline in GPA for irregular sleepers is the result of a delayed melatonin release by the body, according to Andrew Phillips, associate professor of medicine at Harvard and a lead author of the study. This delay changes the circadian clock, causing students to feel like they're in another time zone during the day, says Charles Czeisler, chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

5 big sleep questions, answered

Another factor that could affect students' circadian clock is their exposure to light. For example, students who look at their smartphone late at night or study with fluorescent lighting are potentially causing themselves to feel three hours behind the following morning. "It's as if they were traveling from the East Coast time to the Pacific time zone," says Czeisler.

The research around how the lack of sleep can affect academic performance is well-documented, but there haven't been as many studies about the consistency or regularity of sleep and academic performance, says Kristen Knutson, associate professor of sleep medicine at Northwestern University.

While the researchers emphasized that the study stopped short of establishing a direct cause-and-effect relationship between irregular sleep and bad grades, they say there are also other disadvantages to irregular sleep patterns. "That could be everything from catching a cold to gaining weight to diabetes," says Czeisler.

A few suggestions researchers have for students include:

  • Come up with a realistic bedtime and wake-up time and hold yourself accountable to it;
  • Register for courses that are in the same time period every day; and
  • As hard as it may seem, try to stick to the same sleeping times on the weekend (or at least close).

(Knight, CNN, 6/12).

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