Sleep Deprivation in College Students

College students, especially residential students living on campus, face many challenging adjustments to their new lifestyle. These adjustments include balancing coursework, socialization, and possibly employment while living in busy, noisy, distracting dorms. College student culture makes bad sleep habits, such as staying up late, pounding energy drinks, having strange napping schedules, and pulling all-nighters, seem normative. Peers might single out students who actually pursue good sleep hygiene as being odd.

Over 70 percent of college students report obtaining fewer than the standard eight hours of sleep per night (Hershner & Chervin, 2014). In one study, the average sleep reported by students was 5.7 hours, with an average of nearly three all-nighters per month. Eighty-two percent of college students believe that inadequate sleep threatens their academic performance. Fifty percent of college students, compared to 36 percent of adolescents and adults, report excessive daytime sleepiness.

To be fair, the adult population of the United States is also believed to be sleep deprived. The National Sleep Foundation (2008) reported that the average American worker spent six hours and 55 minutes in bed, which includes the time needed to initiate sleep.  

Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences. After 18 hours of waking, people are more dangerous drivers than when they are legally drunk, due to the adverse effects of sleep deprivation on attention and reaction time. Numerous human-factor disasters have involved sleep deprivation on the part of people whose job it is to monitor functions. These disasters include the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant meltdown in 1979, the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, the grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989, and the 1984 chemical leak at a factory in Bhopal, India that resulted in the deaths of 3800 people. 

It’s no wonder that students believe sleep deprivation interferes with their best performance.

How Sleepy Is Sleepy?

The Epworth Sleepiness Scale (Johns, 1990) is a commonly used instrument for evaluating daytime sleepiness. To assess your own sleepiness, rate the following activities on a scale from 0 for “would never doze” to 3 for “high chance of dozing.”

  1. Sitting and reading
  2. Watching TV
  3. Sitting inactive in a public place (e.g., theatre)
  4. As a car passenger for an hour without a break
  5. Lying down to rest in the afternoon
  6. Sitting and talking to someone
  7. Sitting quietly after lunch without alcohol
  8. In a car, while stopping for traffic

While we might wonder about the choice of some of these items (Is it okay to be sleepy after lunch with alcohol? Do people really get sleepy talking to others?), they have produced valid and reliable assessments of daytime sleepiness.

What was your score? If it is greater than ten, this is an indicator of excessive daytime sleepiness. 

What Is “Normal” Sleep?

The typical “eight hours per night” recommendation for sleep is just that: a recommendation. Individuals vary considerably in the amount of sleep they need. In one case of “healthy insomnia,” a woman sleeps only one hour per night without experiencing any negative effects (Meddis et al., 1973). 

A large-scale study of more than 7000 adults found that sleep duration at age 50 of less than or equal to five hours was associated with more health problems over the following 25 years (Sabia et al., 2022). This does not suggest that students will do their best work as long as they get five hours of sleep. Students might consider observing their sleep habits and subsequent performance to see if they can identify the amount of sleep that works best for their needs.

One of the key variables influencing sleep habits is age. Total sleep and the components of sleep change over the course of the lifespan. Newborns often sleep 14 to 16 hours a day, although it’s hard to convince their exhausted parents of that fact. Sleep quantity decreases to a value between eight and nine hours by the age of five years. In adolescence, however, sleep needs can increase to nine or 10 hours.

Another source of individual differences results from genetics. We have genes that produce proteins to maintain circadian (daily) biorhythms. These genetic differences produce a range of chronotypes, including “larks” (early risers), “owls” (late to bed), and intermediate types. Our cultural structures, such as set times to begin work or a course schedule, can conflict with a person’s chronotype. The owl enrolled in an 8 a.m. course will likely have a tough term.

Because of their genetic origin, chronotypes tend to be stable over the lifespan, but there is one exception. Our maintenance of circadian rhythms is intimately tied to our reproductive systems because this is how many mammals maintain a birth season. Their circadian systems alert them to the length of days, which provides the necessary information for seasonal reproduction. 

Humans are very slightly seasonal in their birth rates, but the system is still in place. At puberty, the burst of sex hormones throws circadian rhythms into owl mode. From adolescence until the mid-20s, most individuals will behave like owls. Subsequently, people with a previous lark or intermediate pattern will return to it. Although many case studies indicate that later starts for teens and young adults benefit grades and retention, colleges and universities still schedule very early classes, often as early as 7 a.m.

What Happens During Sleep?

Animals often work very hard to obtain sleep, suggesting that its benefits are not trivial. Seabirds that land only to lay eggs and raise young spend most of their lives in the air, during which time they grab some sleep while cruising on the thermals. Whales and dolphins must surface to breathe, so they have developed the capacity to sleep one hemisphere at a time. Even the humble fruit fly takes some time out of its day to just hang out on the side of a test tube.

Sleep can be divided into two components: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. We regularly cycle through these components, but NREM dominates the first four hours of sleep and REM the second set of four. NREM contributes to rest and repair functions, with the vast majority of human growth hormone released during this time. Awakening people in a sleep lab to prevent their entering the deepest stages of NREM results in complaints of muscle and joint pain the next morning. 

Also, their overall sensitivity to pain increases. Older adults sleep less than younger individuals, and reductions in NREM contribute most to this change. It is possible that the joint and muscle problems of old age are partly caused by insufficient NREM for repair. 

REM features the vivid, often bizarre dreams that have puzzled thinkers for centuries, but we are unsure of the functions these dreams perform. We know that disruptions of REM sleep are common in several psychological disorders, notably depression. People with poorly managed depression enter REM too early in the night and spend excessive amounts of time in this stage. Waking volunteers in a sleep lab as they enter REM results in some familiar symptoms of a bad night’s sleep: irritability and difficulty concentrating.

From a student’s perspective, the most important thing happening during sleep is the refining of memories. The quiet “offline” brain is better suited to processing the day’s events than the active, online brain during wakefulness. New memories are notoriously weak, as any student can tell you, but they undergo a strengthening process during sleep. 

We process vast quantities of information each day, but we really don’t want to keep all of it. During sleep, memories are sorted into piles of “keep” and “don’t keep.” Failing to do this means you will have a lot of mental clutter, making finding the memories you really want more difficult.

What About Pulling All-Nighters?

Students seem to think that all-nighters are just a normal part of the college experience, but sleep experts argue that they should be avoided at all costs.

Following all-nighters, students show several undesirable effects. They are less able to follow sets of instructions. Their creativity and problem-solving abilities are reduced. Working memory, the equivalent of an “active” window on your computer where you manage current data, is reduced following an all-nighter. All-nighters also make students more susceptible to forming false memories, such as thinking they completed a project when they really didn’t. 

Regular all-nighters are associated with the release of excess cortisol, a stress-related hormone. As a result, students can be more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

All-nighters can usually be avoided by planning a study schedule carefully. There is nothing noble, let alone consistent with cognitive science, about procrastinating so long that you have no choice but to pull an all-nighter. Research shows a dramatic benefit of spacing out learning over time.

Unfortunately, some professions remain in the “I did it, so you have to do it, too” mode, requiring students to pull 48-hour shifts or all-nighters to meet ridiculous deadlines. In these cases, students can cope by working with teams, using caffeine judiciously, staying hydrated and eating heathy foods, keeping the lights bright, getting up and moving every hour, and double- (perhaps triple-) checking each piece of work. 

We cannot make up for lost sleep, but a gentler schedule for a few days following an all-nighter can be beneficial, much like recovery from some bad jet lag.

Conclusions: The Importance of Sleep for College Students

The role of sleep in consolidating memory should be reason enough for students to maintain good sleep hygiene. Still, it’s also important to recognize the role of sleep in maintaining a positive mood and good immune system functioning. 

Regardless of the student culture around you, making sleep a priority should enable you to do your best work.

Laura Freberg, PhD

Laura Freberg, PhD

Writer & Contributing Expert

Laura Freberg serves as professor of psychology at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where she teaches introductory psychology and behavioral neuroscience.

Dr. Freberg is the author or co-author of several textbooks, including Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind, Discovering Behavioral Neuroscience, Applied Behavioral Neuroscience, and Research Methods in Psychological Science. She served as President of the Western Psychological Association (WPA) in 2018-2019.