Anna Traykova, Georgia Institute of Technology
One of my most memorable academic advising appointments during my first semester as an academic advisor was with Bobby (pseudonym). Bobby‘s grades weren’t great, and he shared with me he had a hard time focusing in class and a hard time learning and remembering what he had studied. He specifically noted he had no learning differences or disabilities and had been very successful in high school. Bobby wanted to talk about study skills and strategies that can help him, and we did. Towards the end of the conversation, my Eureka! moment happened. The topic had changed, and we were talking about the need for him to reach out to the Veterans Administration, at which point he said he needed to talk to them anyway, because he had sleep apnea and needed a new CPAP machine, as his current one had a problem, and he hadn’t been using it for a while. This was my light bulb moment—without a CPAP machine, he wasn’t getting deep, restful sleep, so his brain could not really integrate his new knowledge in his long-term memory and his cognitive skills were impacted. There is a history of sleep apnea in my family, so I know about this condition and its effect on sleep quality, mental capacity, and overall health. Bobby could and did dramatically improve his academic success by addressing only one issue—and it wasn’t study skills. The issue was poor-quality sleep.
The American College Health Association (ACHA) identifies poor sleep as one of its top health concerns for students and had better sleep as one of five key benchmarks for its 2020 Healthy Campus campaign (ACHA, n.d.). ACHA surveys show that over half of US college students want to learn more about sleep from their universities, yet only a quarter report hearing anything about sleep from their schools (Hartmann & Prichard, 2014).
The science on sleep is clear: poor sleep decreases mental capacity and compromises mental and physical health. In order for students to learn, and for any individual to thrive and enjoy clear mental focus, robust productivity, motivation, and general wellbeing, sufficient high-quality sleep is of paramount importance (Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine, 2008; NHS, 2018; Walker, 2018). In view of that, statistics on student sleep in the United States are worrisome. Lack of quality sleep is associated with increased drop-out rates for freshman students and lower grades (Hartmann & Prichard, 2014). Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, studies showed that students get less than seven hours of sleep on 46.2% of nights (Kamenetz, 2019). Over 60% of students in a large survey were categorized as poor-quality sleepers and tension and stress were cited as chief culprits (Lund et al., 2010). 20% of students in the ACHA survey report being unable to sleep due to stress about life and school, and 12% report falling asleep in class or missing class due to oversleeping (Hartmann & Prichard, 2014). With recent reports on increased anxiety and depression rates associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (Huckins et al., 2020), the numbers above are anachronistic, yet clearly indicative of a dire situation that begs two questions:
- What can students (and advisors!) do to get better sleep?
- What can advisors do to help students?
What Can Students (and Advisors!) do to get Better Sleep?
Sleep experts agree that prevention is key and worth a pound of cure: i.e., people should be proactive about ensuring sleep quality even if not experiencing any issues. Their advice on how to attain quality sleep is to be conscientious about sleep schedule, nutrition, physical activity, light exposure, sleep environment, sleep-related routines, and stress management (Epstein & Mardon, 2007; National Heart and Blood Institute, 2011; Walker, 2018). Here is a summary of best practices to keep in mind:
It is recommended that people maintain a regular sleep schedule, avoiding the “social jet lag” caused by varying the time one goes to bed and wakes up during the week and the weekend. It is best if this schedule is matched well with a person’s chronotype (lark, bear, owl) and individual sleep need, so that a person can wake up well-rested after between 7–9 hours of sleep without using an alarm clock. (Very few people have won the genetic lottery and can do well on less than 7 hours of sleep.) Sleep scientists note that sleep is not something we can catch up with on the weekend. In case one is short on sleep during the night, experts advocate for taking an intelligent nap during the day of lost sleep. An intelligent nap is one that is no longer than 20 minutes and is taken at least 5 hours before an individual’s typical bedtime.
Unsurprisingly, nutrition and physical activity impact sleep and following general healthy nutrition and exercise guidelines is important for good sleep. Timing is essential. Regarding mealtimes, not too much food or too soon before bedtime is the recommended strategy. People are encouraged to allow at least three hours for food to digest before going to bed and to avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, THC, among other substances that interfere with sleep quality, especially after 5pm. While many will point out that a glass of wine or a little bit of cannabis helps you fall asleep, both alcohol and THC compromise sleep quality so that the brain and body do not get the full benefits of deep, restful sleep (Walker, 2018).
Regular physical activity also contributes to sleep quality. However, as exercise ramps up metabolism and thus keeps a person awake, it is important not to exercise too close to bedtime. The flip side of this is that if one feels sleepy and tired, doing some quick high-intensity exercises or climbing some stairs can boost alertness (Morales, 2017).
Wakefulness, alertness, and circadian rhythms are profoundly influenced by light. Mimicking nature in manmade environments is seen as key to maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. This means assuring adequate exposure to natural daylight or full-sprectrum artificial cool white light during the day and switching to dimmer, warmer, amber light after sunset—think of mimicking candlelight. Utilizing light bulbs with light temperature of about 2000 Kelvin (amber light) and switching all light-emitting screen technology to night-time mode close to bedtime are simple and effective strategies to that effect. Ensuring maximum darkness at night is another equally important sleep hygiene component (Epstein & Mardon, 2007; National Heart and Blood Institute, 2011; Walker, 2018).
Light is just one of the aspects of the sleep environment. As all sensory input has the capacity to affect sleep, sleep experts recommend designing a sleep environment considering its effect on all senses, i.e. the impact of noise, fragrances, temperature, body comfort, etc. There are variations in individual preferences and needs, but for most people feeling hot, hearing startling or unpleasant noises, smelling invigorating or noxious smells, etc. are not conducive to quality sleep.
Wake-up routines can also make a big difference. The general consensus is that it is best to wake up without an alarm clock or before the alarm sounds. First, this is a sign that a person has had enough sleep, provided they are not waking up because of another issue, such as pain, discomfort, etc. Second, waking up to the sound of an alarm inflicts unnecessary stress—blood pressure and heart rate rise, adrenaline is released in the blood stream. If one uses the snooze button, the stress is multiplied by the number of times the alarm is snoozed (Walker, 2018).
Stress can be sleep’s worst enemy, thus effective stress management is essential. Learning how to calm down our nervous system to counteract the effects of stress is of key importance. The good news is there are plenty of resources and straightforward strategies to do so (Davis et al., 2019).
What Can Advisors and Advising Administrators do to Help Students?
Advisors and advising administrators can address the issue of sleep for student success at various levels—individual, group, institutional. Different institutional environments may call for different approaches. The following paragraphs offer some suggestions to build upon.
Talking about sleep can be a routine part of advising interactions with students. There are different ways to bring it up in the conversation. For example, rather than ask a generic question such as “How are you?” to which more often than not one gets a generic answer, an advisor can ask questions like “how did you sleep last night?” as a conversation starter and later on briefly share why they want to know. If a student uses words such as tired, exhausted, or overwhelmed when discussing how things are going, probing further and taking the time to discuss sleep and wellness as factors for academic success is unquestionably warranted.
Advisors often have conversations about time management and planning with students. Making sleep a prominent point of discussion, together with time to relax and socialize, time to be physically active— time for all the activities associated with maintaining wellness—sends an important message to students. An extra sentence saying why the advisor would like to focus on these before discussing time to study, attend classes, work, etc. may be all it takes to make a difference. Following up with an email with a helpful link or two on the topic can reinforce the message. If students are provided with a time-management template sheet, making it a 24-hour template, rather than a daytime template, prompts them to consider sleep as part of their time management.
Advisors also often need to address effective study skills with students—be it in one-on-one conversations, in workshops, first year seminars, orientation sessions, or through articles and resources for web pages, social media, etc. Neglecting to highlight the relationship between sleep quality and quantity and the brain’s capacity to learn and remember in this context is inexcusable. Making students aware of this relationship is good; providing resources on how to attain the needed sleep to those who need them is even better.
If one’s institution does not already have sleep resources and information available online, the good news is there is plenty of it available on the internet. Particular groups of students may respond particularly well to a specific resource, depending on their emotional associations, personal aspirations or other factors. Brand-name recognition can be a factor, thus referring students to resources from the Harvard Sleep & Health Education Gateway may be more effective than referring students to an article in a local lifestyle publication. A student athlete might feel inspired by Shaquille O’Neal discussing sleep apnea and the importance of sleep in a video produced by the Sleep Matters initiative at Brigham and Women’s Hospital while a computing student may respond better to Dr. Matthew Walker’s lectures from the Talks at Google series available on YouTube.
Student success workshops, first-year seminar classes, new student orientation programming, web pages and newsletters are all excellent venues for educating students about the importance of sleep for their student success. A good example of an exciting initiative is Harvard University’s Sleep 101 interactive online module that first-year students are required to complete before bedtime on move-in day (Baglione, 2018).
The research is unequivocal: sound sleep is an important factor for student success (Gilbert & Weaver, 2010; Trockel et al., 2000) and thus any comprehensive strategy to support student success has to address the pandemic of sleeplessness in college. Various college environment factors can play a role in creating a college experience that supports or undermines sleep. Advisors and advising administrators are often part of various committees, working groups, and forums where they can advocate for creating an environment conducive to wellness for their students and ask questions. Are dorms quiet? Are lights in the dorms dimmable? Can students easily lower the temperature at night? What time does noisy grass mowing and leaf blowing on campus start in the morning? Are dorms equipped with light-blocking blinds and/or curtains? Do commuting students have a place to take a nap during the day? Do dining service hours vary on weekends? Do vending machines on campus sell energy drinks that disrupt sleep? Do health and wellness questionnaires, roommate-pairing questionnaires, or advising intake forms include questions about sleep and sleep preferences? Do disability services offer accommodations for sleep disorders? Do tutoring and study hours run until too late? Do professors routinely set submission deadlines for midnight or for 8am in the morning, rather than an 8pm deadline? Do faculty and advisors get trained on the importance of sleep for student success? Questions like these can be formalized into a systematic environmental sleep scan (Broek et al., 2014) to evaluate how sleep-friendly higher education institutions are and inform meaningful action plans.
As students’ academic success (Gilbert & Weaver, 2010; Trockel et al., 2000) and overall health and well-being are affected by the quantity and quality of sleep they get, academic advising and student success professionals simply can’t afford to ignore the problem of sleep—it can be the solution for so many struggling students.
Academic Advisor II
School of City and Regional Planning
College of Design
Georgia Institute of Technology
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Cite this article using APA style as: Traykova, A. (2022, September). Sleep for student success: Suggestions for academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 45(3). [insert url here]