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Don't Skip Sleep to Score High on Finals

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As a freshman college student I remember conversations with my peers in the school library about the upcoming finals and how each of us had our own way of coping with last-minute "all-nighters." Study procrastination seemed to increase as I moved from student to teacher at a small university. Today, students are working more hours, spending more time with social media and spending less time sleeping. "All-nighters" seem a natural extension of an already sleep deprived population. Phrases like, "I can do it, I do it all the time" or "I can sleep when finals are over" are all too common. Unfortunately the lack of sleep may be doing their GPA more harm than good.

It is no surprise that college students are one of the most sleep-deprived demographics in our population. What may be surprising is that sleep is as important to learning as exercise is to physical stamina. If you want to maximize your time learning you must sleep. Research has consistently shown that taking the time to sleep before an exam will benefit your test score more than four or five hours of staying awake staring at notes that you will not remember. In fact, the National Institutes of Health found sleep deprived students have lower GPA's due to the fact that it impacts memory and concentration.

As a young researcher I witnessed first hand that when students were given the opportunity to sleep -- they could sleep anywhere and on any surface. As a teacher I was surprised when students fell asleep during one of my lectures (I am quite certain it had nothing to do with the subject or the teacher!). I am concerned that we have placed so little value on sleep that students ignore its benefits. It is impossible for humans or any species to go without sleep.

For many years sleep was seen as a passive activity that lazy people gave into and smart people learned to cheat and do with less. Current sleep research actually reveals that it's smart to sleep! Sleep is an active process where the brain works to heal the body by producing hormones beneficial for repair and growth. This is also the time for the brain to consolidate memories of what we studied and learned that day. Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM Sleep), which happens in the last part of the night, appears to be associated with learning and memory. This reinforces the mantra that you should be getting eight hours of shut-eye if you want the full benefits of sleep.

We know that learning takes a time commitment -- so does sleep. If students develop a consistent routine for studying and sleep, it will likely mean higher grades and more time for other school activities.

Here are 8 sleep tips to get you the grades you are looking for:

  • Turn Electronics Off: Make a commitment to turn off all electronics 30 minutes before bed. Blue light emitted from computers, smart phones, and tablets hurts natural sleep processes.
  • Eight -- Yes, Eight Hours: Set a routine and commit to getting at least 8 hours of sleep, but preferably more if possible.
  • Smart Snacking: If you have to stay awake during finals try low-calorie non-caffeinated foods like sunflower seeds. The activity will keep you awake but will not interrupt sleep when you are ready to snooze.
  • Say No to Stimulants: From caffeine to energy drinks -- stimulants, both legal and non-legal, have been shown to impact sleep, and that will impact your ability to remember what you just stayed up late to learn.
  • Remember to REM: If you have to stay awake before an exam get at least 6 hours of sleep the night before. This will allow you to get at least some amount of REM sleep, which occurs later in the night and helps consolidate your memories.
  • Dorm Room Rules: If you sleep in a dormitory, use eye masks and earplugs to drown out the light and noise. You will be amazed how this can impact your sleep and your grades.
  • Limit Naps: If you nap, keep it to 30 minutes or less. You are better off studying during this time and sleeping later in the night.
  • Everyone Should Exercise: Exercise helps students in two ways -- making you more alert when it's time to study and helping you to relax when it's time to fall asleep.

In the end, ignoring the need for sleep will only lead to lower grades and productivity. On the flip side, making a commitment to sleep will lead to a lifetime of learning with much less effort and time.