Better Sleep = Better Grades

The characteristics of sleep and sleep habits of university students as predictors of poor academic performance have been scarcely analyzed.

Adequate sleep has a crucial role in enhancing cognitive skills, especially memory retention. Poor nighttime sleep quality and the consequent daytime sleepiness affect the physical and cognitive health of students and their academic performance.

Anyone who’s faced a major deadline, whether for a project, a test in school, or an important business presentation, has probably considered sacrificing sleep in order to spend more time preparing. Pulling an all-nighter — going a whole evening without sleep — is the most extreme form of this sacrifice. So is that All Nighter harming or helping you?

What Is an All-Nighter?

An all-nighter is when you skip your normal time for sleep, instead of staying up through the night. In sleep science, this type of extended period with zero sleep is known as total sleep deprivation.

If you wake up at 8 a.m. and then pull an all-nighter, at 8. a.m. the next morning you will have experienced 24 hours of total sleep deprivation. This clock keeps counting up until you get to sleep.

Although not a technical term, an all-nighter is typically thought of differently than sleep deprivation from insomnia, which occurs because a person is unable to sleep even though they have the opportunity to do so.

Instead, all-nighters are associated with voluntarily skipping sleep. They are often tied to deadlines for school or work. People who work night shifts and have daytime obligations may be forced to pull all-nighters. In other cases, a person may stay up all night for leisure, such as being engrossed in a book or TV series, playing video games, or partying with friends.

How Does An All Nighter Affect Your Grades

Pamela Thacher, associate professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University (Canton, N.Y.), studied the sleeping patterns and transcripts of 111 students to see the correlation between sleep and their grade-point averages.

“You can’t do your best work when you’re sleep-deprived,” Thacher says of her findings, which were that two-thirds of the students reported that they had pulled at least one all-nighter during a semester and that those who did it regularly had lower GPAs. Short-term side effects of sleep deprivation include delayed reactions and tendencies to make mistakes.

The study also examined whether most students who pulled all-nighters did so due to procrastination. According to Thacher, that wasn’t the case for most students. “The data indicate that procrastination is not associated with all-nighters, although both practices significantly correlated with lower GPAs,” she says.

A small proportion of those in the study indicated that they use all-nighters regularly and maintain high GPAs, but Thacher notes that the findings show that won’t be the case for most students.

Many students believe that it’s a “rite of passage” to stay up all night during college and that “it’s kind of fun,” Thacher says. But, she adds, “Pulling all-nighters compromises your sleep overall ” and makes it difficult to reach full academic potential. Short-term side effects of sleep deprivation include delayed reactions and tendencies to make mistakes.

In general, Thacher says, college students’ sleep is inadequate, irregular and of poor quality, and all result in worsened academic performance. Over-use and availability of caffeinated beverages, the presence on campuses of all-night study areas and poor time management all contribute to students’ sleep deprivation, she adds.

Thacher presented the results of her study during the summer at the annual conference of the National Sleep Society, and it is scheduled for publication in the January issue of the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine.

What Is the Effect of Poor Sleep on School Performance?

It is widely accepted by sleep experts that a lack of sleep reduces cognitive abilities and can harm school performance in children and teens.

The majority of research about sleep deprivation has been conducted in adults, but many of the same effects are believed to occur in younger people. Although fewer studies have examined the lack of sleep in children, the existing evidence indicates that poor sleep can harm academic achievement in several ways.

A direct way that sleep and school performance are connected is through effects on mental function. Some known problems associated with lack of sleep include:

  • Decreased attention. The ability to concentrate is vital to learning and academic achievement, but insufficient sleep reduces attention and focus.
  • Impaired memory. Sleep provides a time for memory encoding, which is when the brain stores and strengthens the recollection of an image or thought. Without adequate sleep, memories may not be properly formed, and it may also be more difficult to accurately recall stored information.
  • Slowed processing. Short sleep may reduce sharpness, slow reaction time, and hinder the ability to quickly take in and analyze information9.
  • Worsened sequential thinking. The ability to remember a series of steps, such as in a science experiment or when playing a musical instrument, is reduced when sleep is curtailed.
  • Reduced creativity. Creative thinking relies on being able to make connections between diverse ideas, and some research has found that this type of mental activity is harmed by poor sleep.

Sleep deprivation can also detract from school performance because of various effects on mood and behaviour:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness:  Drowsiness during the day, including at school, can have considerable consequences for academic achievement. Dozing off for seconds at a time, known as microsleeps, can occur in the classroom, causing a student to fall asleep at their desk. In addition to interrupting learning, this may be viewed by teachers as a behaviour problem.
  • Poor decision-making: Limited sleep can hinder the development of the parts of the brain involved in making good decisions, increasing the likelihood of risky or unwise choices that can lead to disciplinary problems in school.
  • Aggression: Some research in children has linked sleeping problems to a heightened risk of aggressive behaviour, which may be especially worrisome when combined with sleep deprivation’s effects on mood.
  • Irritability and mood: Quality sleep is correlated with healthy emotional regulation, which may make children and teens who fail to get enough sleep more likely to be irritable or upset.
  • Hyperactivity: Insufficient sleep can affect attention and in one study was associated with levels of hyperactive behaviour reported by teachers. Sleeping problems may exacerbate the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Depression and Anxiety: In both adults and children, sleep deprivation is associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, and these conditions can directly affect a child’s overall health and school performance.

Academic achievement may also be dragged down by missing school. Sleeping problems have been tied to increased absenteeism or tardiness in school. Behavioural factors may contribute to missed school time, and poor sleep is tied to physical problems like lethargy, headaches, and pain that may contribute to absences due to illness.

Students with greater sleep consistency have better academic performance. A morning circadian preference and earlier classes are associated with higher grades. Later high school start times may increase sleep duration, but do not consistently increase GPA, but improve mood and well-being.

Sleep consistency measures how likely a student is to be awake or asleep at the same time each day. Students with greater sleep consistency have better academic performance. A morning circadian preference and earlier classes are associated with higher grades. Later high school start times may increase sleep duration, but do not consistently increase GPA, but improve mood and well-being. If a student is struggling academically, screening for a sleep disorder is vital.