Lack of Sleep and Its Impact on the Academic Performance of University Students

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As human beings we all have basic needs that have to be met, understanding those needs will help us understand the factors that contribute to the drive to achieve certain goals. Students are preoccupied with many things: classes, work, home life, grades, and health, etc. When students are concerned about certain needs, their behaviors are easily centered on meeting those needs. Those concerns surpass learning and achievement. Physiological needs are the most important and when they are not met, they become the biggest motivating factor in an individual’s behavior. For example, if lack of sleep is an issue, all other needs and desires will be suppressed to satisfy this need. Identification and successful resolution of sleep problems for students with sleep disorders can benefit both university and student. Benefits such as increased retention of information, improved academic performance, a better quality of life, good graduation rates and fewer academic failures.

Balancing academic demands (assignments, quizzes, and study time), along with everything else a student is dealing with in their life is quite challenging. Imagine having to do this with a sleep disorder; sleep disorders are common amongst university students, and this, in turn can affect students’ performance in their classes. Understanding the effects of sleep disorders on academic performances of university students is important, and several researchers have studied this (Gaultney, 2010; Gilbert & Cameron, 2010; Taylor, Bramoweth, Grieser, Tatum & Roane, 2013; Archbold, Goodwin, Levine, Perfect & Quan, 2014; Friedrich, Schlarb, 2017; Hayley, Sivertsen, Hysing, Vedaa, & Overland, 2017).

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The majority of the studies found that lack of sleep due to a sleep disorder and poor sleep quality can contribute to poor performance (low GPA) (Gaultney, 2010; Hayley et al, 2013). Tavernier and Willoughby (2014) conducted a longitudinal study to examine bidirectional associations between sleep (quality and duration) and three indices of psychosocial functioning (intrapersonal adjustment, friendship quality, and academic achievement); the same participants were used for three years. In terms of academic achievement, the results showed that some students who suffer from lack of sleep are high achievers (higher GPA), this finding was also similar in another study (Taylor et al., 2013).

Studies also found other contributing factors to poor academic performances. One factor was poor sleep hygiene and interpersonal adjustment relationship with poor sleep quality. Brown, Buboltz & Soper (2006) found that students are less relaxed as the academic semester progresses. 70% of students in the control group reported poor sleep quality at the beginning of the term, and 82% reported poor sleep quality 8 weeks into the term. This shows that without interventions, sleep quality deteriorates as the term progressed. 84% of the students who met the criteria for poor sleep quality in the original sample also met the criteria for some form of diagnosable primary sleep disorder. Similar to the findings (over 500 students out of 1,845, 27% were at risk for at least one sleep disorder) found in another study, conducted by Gaultney (2010).

Tavernier et al. (2014) found that better intrapersonal adjustment predicted better sleep quality over time. A study conducted by Parker, Summerfeldt, Hogan, & Majeski (2004) found that emotional and social capabilities are important factors for successful transitions from high school to university. Their findings show important links between adaptability and stress management skills, interpersonal abilities and academic success. Adaptability tests a student’s ability to find suitable ways to deal with everyday problems. These findings suggest that in addition to the direct effect between academic achievement and sleep quality, there also might be an indirect effect between academic achievement and sleep quality through intrapersonal adjustment. After testing this hypothesis, a significant indirect effect was found. It showed that intrapersonal adjustment may be an important mechanism linking academic achievement to sleep quality. Results from reports in a study, conducted by Sasai, Inoue, Komada, Nomurac, Matsuura and Matsushima (2010), found that sleep loss deteriorates physical function such as postural sway, blood pressure elevation, glucose intolerance, and immunological dysfunction. In regards to mental function, insomnia has been identified as a risk factor for developing depression or anxiety disorder. Furthermore, insomniacs undergo psychomotor performance degradation, including impairment of both cognitive function and short-term memory.

Among all the different types of psychological treatment for sleep disorders and poor sleep quality, it was found that the most effective types for university students are psychological and behavioral therapy (Friedrich et al., 2017; Alexandru, Robert, Viorel &Vasil, 2009; Sánchez-Ortuño & Edinger, 2010; Taylor et al., 2013 & Brown et al., 2006).

Another form of treatment for sleep disorders is medication (pills). There are several medications that can be prescribed to people with a sleep disorder. The process begins with prescribing medication to the patient with a specific dosage during a trial period, the dosage can be manipulated (up the dosage or reduce it) to see what works. If the medication overall doesn’t work, a different one will be prescribed, and the process is repeated until a combination of medication and dosage works. Sasai et al. (2010) findings implied that the frequency of sleep medication use adversely affects both physical and mental quality of life with adverse effects on physical function (e.g., myorelaxant effects, amnesia, or next-day hangover effects) regardless of the improvement of insomnia symptoms.

In the research mentioned above, it was found that adequate sleep is related to academic success and overall quality of life as a university student. There are several studies on the treatment of sleep disorders, but there are not many studies on how the side effects of medication prescribed as a treatment of that disorder affect university students and their academic performance. One reason may be the fact that sleep disorders among university students are rarely diagnosed (Friedrich et al., 2017; Gaultney, 2010). Gilbert and Weaver (2010) found that college psychologists assess the sleep habits of a student only if depression is reported by the student or suspected. Many psychologists neglect to ask about sleep habits, even if academic functioning is part of the student’s presenting problem; most studies on sleep disorder treatment effects are conducted on adolescence and elementary students.

Sleep at university is especially important this is the period of life between childhood and adulthood marked by massive biological and social changes because it is such an important stage of development. Knowing this, universities should have an open dialogue about this problem. Talking about this problem can become a starting point for addressing more sensitive issues of physical and mental health while finding effective solutions. Sleep relates to many aspects of student’s health and performance, creating interventions that are targeted at improving sleep will also improve overall health and academic success.

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Lack of Sleep and Its Impact on the Academic Performance of University Students. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
“Lack of Sleep and Its Impact on the Academic Performance of University Students.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
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