Teaching, learning, and sleep

It’s that time of the term again – lots to do and not nearly enough time to do it.  Especially for students, at this time of the term the amount of time needed to meet academic and co-curricular obligations thunders past critical mass like a semi-truck blowing by a hitchhiker. Pretty soon basic health and hygiene behaviors get pushed to the side and our kids are riding a rollercoaster of super-sized energy drinks, junk food, and far too little sleep.


One of the outcomes that the Wabash National Study allows us to track is health behaviors.  This set of variables includes measures of exercising, binge drinking, smoking, and sleep deprivation.  Since the end of the term is often a time when students look like they are groggily stumbling toward the finish line, I thought we’d examine students’ reports of sleep deprivation over the first year and see if anything faculty and staff do might impact it one way or the other.


Sleep issues are deceptively complicated because there are lots of reasons why someone might not get enough sleep.  It might be too much homework all at once.  Or it might be stress about something completely unrelated to school.  Since we don’t have the breadth of variables in the Wabash data to get at all of the potentially influential stress related issues, I tried to focus this analysis on the factors that might shape students’ allocation of time and thus influence the frequency of feeling sleep-deprived.


First of all, we found that average amount of times during a week that students’ felt sleep deprived increased from the beginning to the end of the first year – an increase that proved to be statistically significant.  Now by itself, that isn’t much of a surprise – and many of you might say that this is as it should be.  So the next question is:  What are the factors that are uniquely influencing this change?


(I’m glad to send you the full list of variables we examined and the output file if anyone is interested – Regression Modeling Geeks Unite!)


After accounting for basic demographic characteristics and pre-college behaviors, we found that both the number of hours students reported studying per week and the number of hours students spent in co-curricular activities positively influenced an increase in sleep deprivation.  However, after adding greek membership into the mix, the impact of co-curricular involvement evaporated and was replaced by a similar sized impact of greek affiliation.


While that finding is interesting in its own right, I wanted to know more.  Is there anything about the way that we interact with students that might also impact this increase in sleep deprivation?  Interestingly, we found evidence that faculty teaching behaviors might mitigate this apparent increase.  As our students’ reports of experiencing instructional organization and clarity increased, the increase in sleep deprivation during the freshman year was REDUCED.  In other words, the degree to which students report faculty are clear and organized in teaching their courses appears to influence healthier sleeping behaviors in our students.  Moreover, I tested this analysis with the full Wabash data set (about 3000 students from 19 schools) and again, the impact of instructional clarity and organization was significant in reducing the increase in sleep deprivation over the first year.


I’m not sure I’m ready to suggest a direct causal relationship – but I think it’s worth considering the legitimate possibility that the way we teach and organize our courses might indeed play an important role in fostering a positive learning environment beyond the academic sphere.


zzzzzzzzz . . . (make it a good day . . . shhhh),



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