Sleep regularity and academic performance – by Tim Adler

Sleeping Cat


Tim is a nurse here at Health, Counselling and Disability Services.

One of the great things about having Tim on the team is he enjoys writing and has started preparing interesting articles on a range of different student wellbeing topics.

Inspired by some recent research into sleep regularity and academic performance, Tim reflects on his own time as a student, with a focus on sleep and academic performance.

Perhaps this article will make you reflect on your sleep patterns.


As a former university student, I understand all too well the stress of getting those assignments done on time. I often spent hours with my head in the books and many late nights doing last minute assignments that I had only just started the day they were due. Over the course of my university degree I reckon I prioritised just about everything else before sleep including friends, food, work, television and other such leisurely activities. I never gave a thought to how I should prioritise my sleep or how it affected my academic performance.

According to some recent research however, my irregular sleep schedule probably was adversely affecting my performance.

In a study published in 2017 in Scientific Reports, Phillips and colleagues sought to better elucidate the relationship between sleep quality and academic performance (GPA) in undergraduate students.

Through an ingenious mix of sleep diaries, light watches, saliva samples, questionnaires and academic results, the researchers studied the sleep of 61 undergrads over a period of 30 days.

What they found challenges some of our basic ideas about sleep. They found that it was sleep irregularity (i.e. different sleep times each day), as opposed to sleep duration (total sleep time) that was associated with poorer academic performance.

Regular sleepers had an average GPA of 3.72 (out of 4) compared to 3.42 for irregular sleepers. Not a huge difference, but consider that both groups were getting the same amount of sleep. The regular sleepers were getting their sleep at the same time each night: a regular bedtime and wake time. The irregular sleepers were getting theirs at varied times during the night and day.

So why the difference in GPA?

The data suggested that students who had irregular sleep patterns had irregular light exposure which impacted on their circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is basically your internal clock that dictates your level of alertness. If your circadian is out of whack you experience symptoms similar to jet-lag or rotating shift work.

Because of this, the irregular sleepers, despite getting the same amount of sleep, reported poorer sleep quality, sleeping in more regularly and more daytime naps. This could have been disruptive to their study schedules and daily routine and hence their GPA.

Reflecting back on my days as a student, I was like everyone else. I wanted to do the best I could. I thought this meant spending every spare hour I had with my head in the books or writing assignments. It was my mistake thinking that the best I could give was giving 100% all the time.

I have since learned through my exercise program that there are several key components to achieving success (in the case of study: good grades). These include appropriate nutrition, a regular schedule and importantly rest.

However it is often rest that we forsake when we are feeling time pressured. This, unfortunately and inevitably, leads to a vicious cycle of feeling tired, being less productive, having to spend longer studying and back to feeling tired. Getting caught in this cycle ultimately leads to burnout.

What I now know to be true for myself is that if I am able to give 80% effort to my work AND prioritise rest and sleep, then my work performance overall is better. I wonder if I had done the same during university whether I would have gotten the same grades or maybe even higher?

Look – university can be a stressful place with the pressures of assignments and exams that seem to never end, in combination with having to work and making sure you have adequate adequate social contact. It is not very surprising that for many students this translates into an irregular sleep schedule.

However, If I could do my time over I think I would have prioritised sleep much differently. I would have dedicated more time to developing a healthy sleep cycle through good sleep habits.

What are good sleep habits?

Thankfully the Sleep Health Foundation in Australia have you covered in that respect. Grab this “Good Sleep Habits” document. There is nothing ground-breaking in this document but some good basic advice:

• Keep regular times for going to bed and getting up
• Relax for an hour before going to bed
• Avoid going to bed on a full or empty stomach
• If you are not asleep after 20 minutes in bed, go to another room until you feel tired again
• Many poor sleepers spend too long in bed
• Keep distracting things out of the bedroom
• Get some sunlight during the day – especially in the morning
• Most adults of all ages need 7-9 hours of sleep a day
• An evening nap can make it hard to sleep at night


Take home message
Studying at university level is demanding and time consuming; when added on top of normal day-to-day living and work it can seem entirely overwhelming. Fortunately as shown in recent studies, prioritising appropriate amounts of regular sleep can help stabilise your circadian rhythm and allow you to function at a higher level and achieve better overall grades.

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