Colleges open their eyes: ZZZs are key to GPA

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“When you find depression, even when you find anxiety, when you scratch the surface 80 to 90 percent of the time you find a sleep problem as well,” said University of Delaware psychologist Brad Wolgast. Many students who think they have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are often just sleep-deprived. Some simple steps to improve “sleep hygiene” are usually far preferable to prescribing drugs like Ritalin or Adderall. (Wolgast is also seeing more students who’ve been prescribed sleeping pills, which he says usually harm sleep patterns more than help).

“On a campus they’re dealing with alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, Ritalin abuse, sexual assault,” Wolgast said. In comparison, sleep “looks like a small problem. But the truth is if I could wave a magic wand and change everybody’s sleep, there would be fewer problems with pretty much everything else.”

But Wolgast and others don’t have a magic wand, and have concluded nagging students, or fighting the campus culture, is hopeless. Running napping classes _ pitched as ways to help students maximize their sleep _ has proved a more effective pitch. Students also happily accept ear plugs. Hastings, with just 1,200 students, orders them in bulk from a manufacturing supply company and hands out thousands, said Beth Littrell, director of campus health services.

The guru of the college sleep crusade is James Maas, who over 48 years taught more than 65,000 students in Cornell University’s most popular class _ a sleep-focused version of introductory psychology. Maas evangelized to his students and experimented on them as well, asking them to wear sleep-monitoring headbands and showing them magnetic resonance images of the brains of sleep-deprived college students.

“You can see that nothing is going on in their brains,” Maas said. “Literally nothing.”

Confronting students with such photos, along with hard data on how sleep undermines academic performance, is the most effective way to change behavior, Maas says. Still, he’d like to see colleges do more: ending early classes, sound-proofing and air-conditioning dorms, putting sleep education into the curriculum.

The people most receptive to his message on campus are usually coaches. A few years back, he made his pitch to the Cornell’s basketball coach, who stopped morning practices. The next year the Big Red became the first Ivy League team since 1979 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Sleep efforts have paid off at a number of boarding schools. After Maas spoke at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in 2007, the school moved the start of classes back from 7:55 to 8:30 a.m., cut sports practices and homework expectations 10 percent each, and got students back into the dorms earlier at night.

The results? Twenty percent fewer student visits to the health center (in a bad flu year); 17 percent more students taking time for a hot breakfast, and a record increase in GPA. Also, several Deerfield sports teams enjoyed unexpectedly good years, thanks to late-season surges.

Of course, boarding schools have more control over students than colleges. But Deerfield Headmistress Margarita Curtis says that’s no excuse for higher education. She says Deerfield’s efforts worked because students saw the data and bought into it.

“You need to appeal to their intellect,” she said. “They responded because they saw that correlation. They saw if you get that extra hour of sleep, this is what happens in your brain, what happened to that athlete.”

On many college campuses, the biggest obstacle is a deep-rooted culture of sleep deprivation macho; for both the cool kids and the smart kids, it seems, the thing to brag about is how little sleep you’re getting, not how much. Rebecca Robbins, a Cornell graduate student, has researched how students talk about sleep, and found more than 80 percent of the time, it was in negative terms.

“Kids in the coffee line will brag, `I got two hours of sleep last night,’ almost like it’s a competition,” she said. “”If that’s all you hear as an adolescent, you begin to think these types of behavior are normal.”

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Follow Justin Pope at http://www.twitter.com/JustinPopeAP

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