MONDAY, Dec. 10, 2018 -- It's a college tradition to pull "all-nighters" during final exams. But students may get better grades if they simply go to bed early, two new studies suggest.
Researchers found that students who met an "8-hour sleep challenge" during finals week did better on their exams than those who slept less.
The results prove that the college ritual of "cramming" is not necessary for success -- and may actually be counterproductive, the study authors said.
"The findings aren't shocking, on one hand -- but they are shocking relative to our culture," said Michael Scullin, a researcher at Baylor University who conducted both studies.
In general, he said, college students expect that finals week will involve staying up until 3 a.m., downing caffeine and poring over notes. It's all part of a wider societal attitude that values all-nighters over a good night's sleep, according to Scullin, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the Texas-based university.
Scullin pointed to a recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation, where only 10 percent of Americans said they make adequate sleep a priority.
"We are widely underappreciating the importance of sleep," he said.
College students are particularly bad sleepers. They average around five or six hours of shut-eye per night, according to Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of the sleep and circadian disorders division at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston.
But the problem goes beyond sleep duration, said Czeisler, who was not involved in the new research.
To fully benefit from the "restorative" effects of sleep, he explained, people need a regular sleep schedule -- going to bed and rising around the same time every day. But college students generally have schedules that are all over the map.
"One of the most critical aspects of sleep is its regularity," Czeisler said, "and that's a problem for many students."
In a recent study of Harvard undergrads, his team found that those with regular sleep schedules had better grades, on average, than those with irregular sleep patterns.
And when the researchers measured the students' levels of the "sleep hormone" melatonin, they found a biological effect: In students with irregular sleep schedules, the "body clock" was shifted nearly three hours later, versus students with consistent sleep habits.
According to Czeisler, that means an exam at 9 a.m. would feel, to the body clock, like 6 a.m. -- a time when performance is relatively dulled.
The latest findings are based on two studies that tested the same "sleep challenge." One, reported recently in the Teaching of Psychology journal, included 34 undergrads in a psychology course.
The students were offered the chance to take or decline the sleep challenge -- where they could earn extra credit if they averaged 8 hours of sleep per night during finals week. To keep them honest, the students wore wrist devices that recorded their activity levels.
Overall, Scullin's team found, students who met the challenge fared better than those who either declined to participate, or tried and failed: Successful sleepers typically scored 5 points higher on their exams (not counting the extra credit).
The other study, published recently in the Journal of Interior Design, involved 22 interior design students who attempted the challenge, and 22 who did not.
As a whole, students who took the sleep challenge did just as well on their final projects as the comparison group -- even though they allowed themselves to get more rest. They slept for an average of 98 minutes more per night.
In addition, students who managed consistent sleep schedules performed better than those with irregular sleep habits during finals, the findings showed.
"You don't have to stay up until 3 a.m.," Scullin said. "You need to get better at prioritizing, and consolidating your study time during the day."
That advice is not just for college students, though. "We should all take an honest look at how we spend our time during the day, and see if we can manage it a little better," Scullin said. "Ask yourself, 'How much garbage time is there in my day?'"
Not surprisingly, that includes assessing your device time. According to Scullin, research shows that when college students are studying, they are typically interrupted by social media notifications every few minutes or so.
His advice is to put the phone away and go to bed earlier. "You'll probably find that it actually feels good to get more sleep," Scullin said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on sleep basics.
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