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Academic All-Nighters: Sleep Studies, History, And Common Sense

June 25, 2007

A few weeks ago I came upon the abstract of a study correlating low student GPAs with students pulling all-nighters. The study was to be presented at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine‘s annual SLEEP conference. Here are some excerpts from the press release:

– “A common practice among many college students involves “pulling all-nighters”, or a single night of total sleep deprivation, a practice associated with lower grade-point averages compared to those who make time for sleep, according to a research abstract that will be presented Wednesday at SLEEP 2007, the 21st Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS).”
– ” ‘Sleep in college students is generally inadequate, irregular and of poor quality. As sleep quality and quantity decrease, academic performance worsens. The data collected in this study indicate that the use of a single night of total sleep deprivation is not an effective practice for achieving academic goals,’ said Pamela Thacher, PhD, of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, who authored the study.”
– “The findings are based on interviews with 111 students at St. Lawrence University.”
– “The annual SLEEP meeting brings together an international body of 5,000 leading researchers and clinicians in the field of sleep medicine to present and discuss new findings and medical developments related to sleep and sleep disorders. More than 1,000 research abstracts will be presented at the SLEEP meeting, a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society. The four-day scientific meeting will bring to light new findings that enhance the understanding of the processes of sleep and aid the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders such as insomnia, narcolepsy and sleep apnea.”

And here’s another press release from the Academy, from earlier this year, on sleep, student performance, and behavior.


I wonder if anyone has written a history of sleep? A quick Google search resulted in a brief history of sleep research, composed by someone at Stanford University. Of course that’s not the same thing. Here’s a predictable chronology of sleep history composed by a drug company, Lunesta. Naturally it focuses on chemical means of inducing sleep. And here’s a National Public Radio broadcast where Virginia Tech historian Roger Ekirch argued that “an uninterrupted night’s rest is a modern fiction.” Fascinating!

Roger Ekirch’s critique, which I’ve not listened to, gives me a cheap segue into an immediate criticism of the study excerpted above.

Most students and academics deprive themselves of sleep under duress. It’s generally a time management problem. In my experience, however, it’s decidedly not a regular mode of being.

One’s GPA, furthermore, is inherently an average of performance over time, such as in the case of a 16-week semester. Pulling an all-nighter usually affects one’s performance for a few days after. So if a student pulls three all-nighters in a term, then a maximum of maybe 6-9 days are affected. But in a 16-week terms there are 112 days to consider. Depending on the timing of the all-nighter, and the goal of the night’s work, those 3 all-nighters might seem like a reasonable trade-off. Nine days is only 8 percent of one’s term. In sum, unless one is a habitual all-nighter kind of student, or worker, a few all-nighters should have little to do with one’s grade point average.

And if Roger Ekirch is right, then all bets are off. If everyone else’s nights of sleep are more than occasionally interrupted – throughout history – then why should a college student complain about a few late nights? Of course all-nighters are like late nights on steriods, but even a few all-nighters shouldn’t kill one’s GPA.

I think our productive, academic lucubrators can carry on without fear – or rest easy if they’re so re-clined! – TL

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  1. For those of you desperate for strategies to stay awake – studying – apparently there is a book for you: How to Pull an AllNighter by William Hope. Who knew? Happy reading. – TL


  2. I'd suggest that they've mistaken correlation for causation. The kinds of students likely to feel the need to “pull and all nighter” (self-reported, remember) are also likely to be the lower GPA students in the first place. At least it'd seem that way to me. The truly superior students are the ones who are dedicated to their studies, have planned accordingly, and have studied all along. Ah, if only I had been one of those….



  3. Mike N. permalink

    I agree with your take on this, Tim. Regarding, Lunesta, this might be the kind of media alarmism that the medical industrial complex often employs to hawk their snake oil. As an undergraduate, I frequently “pulled all nighters” during finals week but that was it. I also enjoyed it, frankly. I was young, I could do it, and a day or two during finals week without sleep was a rush. It's part of college culture.


  4. “Medical Industrial Complex.”

    Good one! Ike's old complex controlled higher education in the 1960s, or so it's told. And the new one's trying to nudge its way into higher ed today. – TL


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