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Dreaming of Spring: The Benefits of Sleep on Academic Success

“We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

is rounded with a sleep.”

– William Shakespeare, The Tempest 4.1.156-158

Losing an hour of sleep last night for Daylight Savings Time means a bleary-eyed Monday morning and a tough adjustment to a “new” schedule for many of us in the TECHniques Center. This shift, combined with midterms, grade checks, and impending excitement over spring break, means that many students may not be getting enough quality sleep. Add to this the negative side effects that many medications have on sleep cycles, and it’s very easy for students to fall into poor sleep habits that can affect their academics.

Study after study has shown the benefits of quality sleep on academic success, but you don’t have to be a scientist to know this. Ask anyone who is sleep deprived what the differences are in his or her performance on days when the night before was full of quality Zzzz’s and dreaming and days when a lack of sleep made the hours feel like a long drive through the fog.

Why is good sleep so important to learning?

First, good sleeps “helps learning and memory in two distinct ways,” according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. A person who is not well rested cannot focus his or attention to their best ability, and as a result, can’t process information to learn it in the best way. Think of all the 8:00 a.m. classes full of yawning students. If they didn’t get quality sleep the night before, that lecture on the global marketplace is going to go in one ear and right out the other.

Second, the physical act of sleep helps the brain consolidate memories, which is an essential step in learning new information. In other words, our brains get new information while we are awake, but it’s while we sleep that the neurons linking that new information to what we already know and why it matters are strengthened. Without good sleep, all those hours of reading, quizzing, working homework problems, and listening to lectures aren’t going to help you on the exam.

Believe it or not, a lack of healthy sleep, whether for one night or over months, “negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions” (aka learning stuff) and can actually contribute to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and even decreased life expectancy.

It’s really important that students make getting enough quality sleep as necessary to their success as studying, eating well, exercising, going to class, and using their resources. This is hard in an environment with late night study groups, intramural games, socializing, and student organization meetings, but if they can make it a priority, they’ll be surprised at how much better they learn.

For more information on the importance of sleep on learning, visit Harvard’s Medical School “Healthy Sleep” website http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/.

And for a fun quiz on the quality of sleep you’re getting (with tips on how to improve it), visit http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/05/sleep/quiz/sleep#sleep

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