Sleep and Academic Excellence: A Deeper Look

By: Keshav Saigal

In the whirlwind of deadlines, exams, and extracurricular activities that define our lives throughout high school and college, sleep is often sacrificed. Late-night study sessions, scrolling through social media, or binge-watching the latest Netflix series might seem like necessary trade-offs for those hours of rest. However, for those looking to boost your academic performance, optimizing your sleep might be more beneficial and more nuanced than you think. In this article, we’ll go beyond simply discussing getting more rest for better grades, but outline the details of a healthy sleep schedule and tips you can implement. Through the lens of an important study published in 2019, we’ll delve into the fascinating world of sleep hygiene — a term that encompasses the habits and practices that can enhance the quality of your sleep.

The 2019 study was conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where 100 students were selected from an Introduction to Solid State Chemistry class (only 88 of whom met the final criteria). For that semester, the students wore a Fitbit, a wearable activity tracker, which using a combination of movement and heart-rate patterns assessed sleep. This provided researchers, who also had access to the student’s overall scores at the end of the class (sum of all grade-relevant quizzes and exams), an objective measure of sleep duration and quality, rather than self-reports. This was a significant improvement over previous studies.

The prominent findings of the study were that “better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep correlated with better grades.” In fact, they found that nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance was attributed to sleep.

To understand the distinctions, we have to first understand the science behind why sleep can be such a powerful tool in succeeding academically. Essentially, all the cognitive gains happen when you’re asleep; sleep actually solidifies your memories of the day, which is necessary for you to recall what you studied, by strengthening the “synaptic connections that were active during awake-periods.” Additionally, in studies where people were actually deprived of sleep in the short term (<48 hours), researchers found not only increased fatigue and sleepiness as expected, but also worsened cognitive performance. These results elucidate the importance of studying sleep and its connection to academic performance.

Sleep and your brain: How did they study it?

The data in this research study showcased two distinct ways of characterizing sleep. First, there is a single ‘day’ of sleep: the 24 hours before and after a night of sleep. Here they measured: bedtime, wake-up time, total hours of sleep, and sleep quality (a calculated combination of movement and heart patterns). Second, there is sleep over time: the consistency of sleep schedules over weeks and months. Here they measured: the standard deviation of a participant’s average daily hours of sleep.

To look at these two categories of sleep, the researchers selected from volunteers in a chemistry class at MIT. The students were all given a FitBit at the start of the semester and told to wear it for at least 80% of the time each week. They were largely freshmen (97%) in a Solid State Chemistry class with weekly lectures and quizzes, 3 midterms, and a final exam. By the end of the class, 88 students managed to have successfully met their requirements. The researchers collected all of their data from each student’s Fitbit and exam scores, including quality.

What did they find?

In the single-day category, the study had results on four components: bedtime, wake-up time, duration, and quality. Their results are detailed below:

  • Bedtime: “earlier average bedtime was associated with a higher overall score in the chemistry class”
  • Wake-up time: “earlier average wake-up time was associated with a higher overall score in the chemistry class”
  • Duration: “a greater amount of sleep was associated with a higher overall score in the chemistry class”
  • Quality: “there was a significant positive correlation between average sleep quality… and overall score in the chemistry class” 

In order of statistical significance by correlation coefficient r (a measurement of the strength and direction of the relationship between two variables), their conclusions were that going to sleep earlier, sleeping more soundly, sleeping for longer, and finally waking up earlier was associated with better academic performance.

While tracking the single ‘day’ of sleep of the MIT students, the researchers also analyzed the overarching data from the semester. Their primary discovery detailed how “greater inconsistency in sleep duration was associated with a lower overall score.” What does that mean? Poor scheduling over months all add up. One good night of sleep can’t fight a whole semester of inconsistent sleep, which entails all the components of a single ‘day’ of sleep, but day-in, day-out for weeks and weeks. That means a consistent number of hours of sleep from the same bedtime to the same wake-up time every day and lifestyle habits that contribute to better sleep quality. It means that for those of you that sleep poorly during the week and bank on catching up on the weekend – uh oh! The researchers found having a routine of sleeping less during weekdays and oversleeping on weekends was associated with worse performance. 

However, it isn’t all bad news. While poor habits lead to worse grades, one night of bad sleep doesn’t have that large of a difference. Researchers also found that there was “no relation between sleep measures on the single night before a test and test performance; instead, sleep duration and quality for the month and the week before a test correlated with better grades.” For anyone planning on last-minute cramming, this indicates that long-term consistency is of greater importance. It is about setting a routine and getting in the habit of prioritizing all the aforementioned nuances of a healthy single day of sleep.

Sleep and YOUR brain: What can you do about it?

How can we do that? While perfecting your sleep schedule and optimizing for academic success is a complicated and futile endeavor as both high school and college bring many distractions, there are smaller steps we can take. In fact, work from the director of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab and pioneer of ‘Tiny Habits’, Dr. BJ Fogg, shows that baby steps are one of the only ways to genuinely improve. You might think you need to overhaul your sleep by changing everything all at once. But what is shown to be far more effective is instead to try and pick one aspect of sleep the researchers focused on and try to change that, e.g., waking up at the same time every day. In practicality, we all know that better sleep habits will help us in every part of life. Perhaps we didn’t know that sleep hygiene encompasses so much or can impact academics so strongly. Understanding the research is a starting point on that journey. But to continue on, we’ve designed a list of tips you can follow, supported by further research.

Category A: The Single ‘Day’ Of Sleep

Tip #1: Set a consistent wake-up time

Tip #2: Get enough sleep

Tip #3: Improve your sleep quality with powerful daily habits

Category B: Sleep Over Time

Tip #1: Maintain a consistent sleep schedule

  • Sticking to a healthy routine has an immense impact on how sleep can improve your academic performance. Research has also indicated that “the consistency of sleep patterns may have a greater impact on GPA than sleep duration.” This means trying to keep your routine for all 7 days of the week. Blips in the schedule and any off-nights shouldn’t have as grand an impact, as long as the routine is kept up for a long period of time.

Tip #2: Reflect on the habits that work for you

  • While we have mentioned several strategies you can follow to boost the quality of your sleep, incorporating all of them can be incredibly hard and stressful. As you attempt to implement some of them, see what works for you and what doesn’t. We are all different and respond differently to various sleep strategies. Create a relaxing bedtime routine that works for you. This can include reading a book, taking a warm bath, and much more. It’s essential to experiment with different techniques and observe how they impact your sleep quality. By reflecting on your habits and preferences, you can tailor your sleep routine to suit your individual needs. And once you’ve identified the sleep habits that work best for you, it can help to monitor your progress and make necessary adjustments. If you find that certain habits are not yielding the desired results, be open to making changes and refining your approach. Remember that improving your sleep habits is an ongoing process, and what works for you may evolve over time. By staying flexible and proactive in managing your sleep, you can continue to enhance your academic success.

Incorporating the approaches outlined in this article can be transformative. By recognizing the impact of sleep hygiene on academic performance, we can take proactive steps to enhance our sleep routines and, ultimately, achieve better outcomes in both our educational pursuits and daily lives. As we navigate the demands of high school and college, let us not overlook the power of a good night’s sleep in shaping our success.