Sleep quality and consistency associated with better academic performance (2019)

Sleep quality and consistency associated with better academic performance (2019)


Although numerous survey studies have reported connections between sleep and cognitive function, there remains a lack of quantitative data using objective measures to directly assess the association between sleep and academic performance. In this study, wearable activity trackers were distributed to 100 students in an introductory college chemistry class (88 of whom completed the study), allowing for multiple sleep measures to be correlated with in-class performance on quizzes and midterm examinations. Overall, better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep correlated with better grades. However, 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. Sleep measures accounted for nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance. These findings provide quantitative, objective evidence that better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep are strongly associated with better academic performance in college. Gender differences are discussed.


The relationship between sleep and cognitive function has been a topic of interest for over a century. Well-controlled sleep studies conducted with healthy adults have shown that better sleep is associated with a myriad of superior cognitive functions,1,2,3,4,5,6 including better learning and memory.7,8 These effects have been found to extend beyond the laboratory setting such that self-reported sleep measures from students in the comfort of their own homes have also been found to be associated with academic performance.9,10,11,12,13

Sleep is thought to play a crucial and specific role in memory consolidation. Although the exact mechanisms behind the relationship between sleep, memory, and neuro-plasticity are yet unknown, the general understanding is that specific synaptic connections that were active during awake-periods are strengthened during sleep, allowing for the consolidation of memory, and synaptic connections that were inactive are weakened.5,14,15 Thus, sleep provides an essential function for memory consolidation (allowing us to remember what has been studied), which in turn is critical for successful academic performance.

Beyond the effects of sleep on memory consolidation, lack of sleep has been linked to poor attention and cognition. Well-controlled sleep deprivation studies have shown that lack of sleep not only increases fatigue and sleepiness but also worsens cognitive performance.2,3,16,17 In fact, the cognitive performance of an individual who has been awake for 17 h is equivalent to that exhibited by one who has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%.1 Outside of a laboratory setting, studies examining sleep in the comfort of peoples’ own homes via self-report surveys have found that persistently poor sleepers experience significantly more daytime difficulties in regards to fatigue, sleepiness, and poor cognition compared with persistently good sleepers.18

Generally, sleep is associated with academic performance in school. Sleep deficit has been associated with lack of concentration and attention during class.19 While a few studies report null effects,20,21 most studies looking at the effects of sleep quality and duration on academic performance have linked longer and better-quality sleep with better academic performance such as school grades and study effort.4,6,9,10,11,12,13,22,23,24,25,26,27 Similarly, sleep inconsistency plays a part in academic performance. Sleep inconsistency (sometimes called “social jet lag”) is defined by inconsistency in sleep schedule and/or duration from day to day. It is typically seen in the form of sleep debt during weekdays followed by oversleep on weekends. Sleep inconsistency tends to be greatest in adolescents and young adults who stay up late but are constrained by strict morning schedules. Adolescents who experience greater sleep inconsistency perform worse in school.28,29,30,31

Although numerous studies have investigated the relationship between sleep and students’ academic performance, these studies utilized subjective measures of sleep duration and/or quality, typically in the form of self-report surveys; very few to date have used objective measures to quantify sleep duration and quality in students. One exception is a pair of linked studies that examined short-term benefits of sleep on academic performance in college. Students were incentivized with offers of extra credit if they averaged eight or more hours of sleep during final exams week in a psychology class32 or five days leading up to the completion of a graphics studio final assignment.33 Students who averaged eight or more hours of sleep, as measured by a wearable activity tracker, performed significantly better on their final psychology exams than students who chose not to participate or who slept less than eight hours. In contrast, for the graphics studio final assignments no difference was found in performance between students who averaged eight or more hours of sleep and those who did not get as much sleep, although sleep consistency in that case was found to be a factor.

Our aim in this study was to explore how sleep affects university students’ academic performance by objectively and ecologically tracking their sleep throughout an entire semester using Fitbit—a wearable activity tracker. Fitbit uses a combination of the wearer’s movement and heart-rate patterns to estimate the duration and quality of sleep. For instance, to determine sleep duration, the device measures the time in which the wearer has not moved, in combination with signature sleep movements such as rolling over. To determine sleep quality, the Fitbit device measures the wearer’s heart-rate variability which fluctuates during transitions between different stages of sleep. Although the specific algorithms that calculate these values are proprietary to Fitbit, they have been found to accurately estimate sleep duration and quality in normal adult sleepers without the use of research-grade sleep staging equipment.34 By collecting quantitative sleep data over the course of the semester on nearly 100 students, we aimed to relate objective measures of sleep duration, quality, and consistency to academic performance from test to test and overall in the context of a real, large university college course.

A secondary aim was to understand gender differences in sleep and academic performance. Women outperform men in collegiate academic performance in most subjects35,36,37,38 and even in online college courses.39 Most of the research conducted to understand this female advantage in school grades has examined gender differences in self-discipline,40,41,42 and none to date have considered gender differences in sleep as a mediating factor on school grades. There are inconsistencies in the literature on gender differences in sleep in young adults. While some studies report that females get more quantity43 but worse quality sleep compared with males,43,44 other studies report that females get better quality sleep.45,46 In the current study, we aim to see whether we would observe a female advantage in grades and clarify how sleep contributes to gender differences.


Bedtime and wake-up times

On average, students went to bed at 1:54 a.m. (Median = 1:47 a.m., Standard Deviation (SD) of all bedtime samples = 2 h 11 min, SD of mean bedtime per participant = 1 h) and woke up at 9:17 a.m. (Median = 9:12 a.m., SD of all wake-up time samples = 2 h 2 min; SD of mean wake-up time per participant = 54 min). The data were confirmed to have Gaussian distribution using the Shapiro–Wilks normality test. We conducted an ANOVA with the overall score (sum of all grade-relevant quizzes and exams—see “Procedure”) as the dependent variable and bedtime (before or after median) and wake-up time (before or after median) as the independent variables. We found a main effect of bedtime (F (1, 82) = 6.45, p = 0.01), such that participants who went to bed before median bedtime had significantly higher overall score (X = 77.25%, SD = 13.71%) compared with participants who went to bed after median bedtime (X = 70.68%, SD = 11.01%). We also found a main effect of wake-up time (F (1, 82) = 6.43, p = 0.01), such that participants who woke up before median wake-up time had significantly higher overall score (X = 78.28%, SD = 9.33%) compared with participants who woke up after median wake-up time (X = 69.63%, SD = 14.38%), but found no interaction between bedtime and wake-up time (F (1, 82) = 0.66, p = 0.42).

A Pearson’s product-moment correlation between average bedtime and overall score revealed a significant and negative correlation (r (86) = −0.45, p < 0.0001), such that earlier average bedtime was associated with a higher overall score. There was a significant and negative correlation between average wake-up time and overall score (r

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These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
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