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Succeed in College by … Sleeping More?

Man and dog sleeping on couch

Sleeping by Andrew Roberts licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0

Do you ever talk to your students about what they can do to be successful in your class and in college more generally? When you have that conversation, what are the essential factors that you discuss?

Is sleep one of them? If not, maybe it should be.

I recently finished reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, a book that is considerably more substantive than its vaguely pop-sci titles makes it sound. Walker, a respected sleep researcher, directs the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California – Berkeley, and his book offers a very readable synthesis of what scientists have learned about sleep’s essential role in human health, psychological well-being, and–as it now turns out–learning.

Line graph of an EEG sleep spindle, which shows a short burst of intense intense activity
An EEG representation of a typical sleep spindle. That little burst of activity does a lot of work on behalf of memory and learning. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t just critical to our physical health. It’s also vital to our ability to store memories and to integrate new information we encounter each day. In a fascinating section of the book, Walker describes how brainwave patterns known as sleep spindles–essentially short burst of neural activity that occur repeatedly in certain sleep phases–have been shown to be directly linked to memory consolidation and, ultimately, to learning. In one study Walker mentions, researchers found that the “more sleep spindles an individual obtained…the greater the restoration of their learning when they woke up” (110).

Other studies have resulted in similar findings, and have even established that sleep spindle activity is connected with both “information processing speed” and “learning efficiency” (Lustenberger et al. 2012). In fact, “sleep quality and quantity are closely related to student learning capacity and academic performance” (Curcio 2006) and there is a also “significant positive correlation between amount of sleep per night and GPA” (Lowry 2010).

Shortened sleep duration, sleep interruptions, and chronic sleep deprivation all contribute to reduced sleep spindle frequency in adolescents and adults. In other words, when we don’t sleep enough, our brains quite literally become less able to store memories and encode new information efficiently, both of which are absolutely essential to long-term learning.

So maybe next time you give students tips on how they can prepare themselves to learn and succeed in college, start with the most essential of all: get a really good night’s sleep.