PITTSBURGH — There’s no adjustment like going from high school to college. The late nights out, different study habits, and newfound freedom can put a strain on getting a good night’s sleep for many teens and young adults. It might even cost some students their academic success, according to a new study by a team from Carnegie Mellon University demonstrates. Their research finds getting less than six hours of sleep can lower a college student’s GPA.
“Animal studies have shown how critical sleep is for learning and memory,” says David Creswell, study team leader and the William S. Dietrich II Professor in Psychology and Neuroscience at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a university release.
“Here we show how this work translates to humans. The less nightly sleep a first year college student gets at the beginning of the school term predicts lower GPA at the end of the term, some five to nine weeks later. Lack of sleep may be hurting students’ ability to learn in their college classrooms.”
Previous studies have shown that sleep duration is a crucial predictor of several health and performance outcomes. This is why current sleep guidelines recommend that teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep nightly. Unfortunately, many college students fall outside of this range and get irregular sleep. In animal studies, scientists have shown how the brain consolidates memories during sleep. When there’s disruptions to normal sleep, information learned throughout the day may be lost. Since this would be important for students, Creswell and the team wanted to explore if inadequate sleep could impair learning and how this might play out in academic achievement.
Losing an hour of sleep could turn that A- into a B+
To do this, they evaluated over 600 first-year college students across five studies at three different universities. The students wore Fitbit devices to record their sleep patterns. The researchers found that, on average, students slept for 6.5 hours a night. They even found that students sleeping less than six hours see a notable decline in academic performance. Moreover, for each hour of sleep lost, there’s a 0.07-decrease in GPA by the end of the term.
“Once you start dipping below six hours, you are starting to accumulate massive sleep debt that can impair a student’s health and study habits, compromising the whole system,” Creswell explains. “Most surprising to me was that no matter what we did to make the effect go away, it persisted.”
The team notes they controlled for past academic performance, daytime napping, race, gender, and first-generation status, but the results remained constant after taking these influential factors into account.
“A popular belief among college students is value studying more or partying more over nightly sleep,” Creswell concludes. “Our work here suggests that there are potentially real costs to reducing your nightly sleep on your ability to learn and achieve in college. There’s real value in budgeting for the importance of nightly sleep.”
This work supports the idea that institutions should consider implementing structured programs and interventions that encourage students to prioritize on getting better sleep.
The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.