College Students Experience Sleep Deprivation in the Final Stretch of the Semester

Feeling tired as the semester winds down? As Julia Konow's article shows, you are not alone.

Photo credit: Flickr CC Travis Swicegood

By Julia Konow

Worcester State University student Kendra Wynn typed feverishly on her laptop at midnight during the final stretch of the semester. She was sitting at the desk in her quiet dorm room as she finished up the paper for a writing class, and only received a couple hours of sleep after completing the assignment. In class the next day, Kendra was lethargic and struggled to pay attention.

“There are definitely nights that I’m up late with homework or cannot fall asleep because of stress,” said Kendra Wynn, a 20-year-old student majoring in communications and minoring in writing at Worcester State University. “Then I have to get up early the next morning for practice or class not feeling well-rested at all.”

Wynn is not the only college student who struggles with not getting enough sleep at night. Many students at Worcester State University are experiencing sleep deprivation and exhaustion nearing the end of the semester due to stress and hefty academic workloads. The sleep deprivation on campus is reflective of a national trend among numerous college students, but this lack of sleep can have many negative consequences.

“I know that so many people are exhausted,” said Wynn. “I think that this is the point in the semester where work really starts piling up and often students have to stay up late doing work, therefore becoming exhausted.”

As the fall semester winds down at Worcester State University, the workload ramps up. There are final exams, lab reports, research papers, essays, and assignments with closely approaching due dates. These assignments and hours of studying are taking their toll on students. But with the semester’s end rapidly approaching, all these assignments are doing more than just limiting relaxation and free time for Worcester State students. The hefty workload is also limiting sleep.

This growing trend of sleep deprivation at Worcester State University can also be observed on a national level. About 50 percent of college students reported feeling tired during the day due to a lack of sleep or irregular sleep schedules, which is greater than the 36 percent of adolescents and adults who experience daytime drowsiness. Roughly 70 percent of college students experience insufficient sleep at night.

“I don’t get a lot of sleep because of homework and stress, especially at this point in the semester,” said Genevieve Bellavance, a 21-year-old junior studying elementary education at Worcester State University. “I feel like, at the beginning of the semester, there was a light workload and now it just hit me that I have so much work that I need to do.”

Bellavance added that she does not think the workload and stress will stop until final exams are finished. Other Worcester State University students also feel as though the final stretch of the semester, with heavy workloads and building anxiety, is leading to exhaustion.

“I get to bed late from doing school work,” said Angela Woodford, a 20-year-old junior majoring in English and minoring in secondary education at Worcester State University. “When I’m stressed it is hard for my body to let me rest and stop thinking for a moment. At this point in the semester I feel a bit overwhelmed because of the amount of assignments with many of the due dates close together.”

This feeling of being overwhelmed is mutual for many college students. At this point in the final stretch of the semester, the Worcester State University Learning Resource Center is often inundated with students feverishly studying from textbooks, typing on laptops, flipping through flashcards, and writing in notebooks. Many students have their earbuds in as they focus on the assignments splayed out in front of them to combat the nearing due dates and brewing stress. It is a busy time of year on campus, which leaves little time to sleep for many individuals.

“I definitely don’t sleep enough,” said Lauren Murphy, a 21-year-old senior studying communications at Worcester State University. “Towards the end of this semester I am definitely more stressed. I sometimes wait until last minute to write papers late at night, so I get less sleep.”

Murphy went on to describe how many of her peers also come to class exhausted due to the highly stressful time of the semester, and that the lack of sleep is noticeably detrimental for many students.

“Towards the end of the semester, I have seen students struggle to stay awake,” said Dr. Nicole Rosa, an assistant professor of psychology who has worked at Worcester State University for five years. “It is a cyclic process where stress leads to not getting a good night’s sleep, which then makes it more difficult to deal with everyday stressors. Sleep deprivation negatively impacts impulse control, decision making, and makes it harder to pay attention or focus in class.”

Stress and impending due dates are common causes of sleep deprivation at Worcester State University that are especially frequent right before the semester ends due to the substantial influx of work and studying to do. But this is not the only college campus where students forgo sleep in an effort to successfully complete assignments.

The article “Sleep Patterns and Predictors of Disturbed Sleep in a Large Population of College Students,” which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, revealed the results of a study about the sleeping habits of college students. Studies revealed that 39 percent of students say that academics interfere with sleep, while 25 percent said that emotional stress limits the amount of sleep that they get each night. Overall, about 68 percent of students responded that stress is the main interference with initiating sleep.

“There is a well-documented harmful effect of stress on various aspects of our physical and mental health,” said Dr. Kathryn Frazier, an assistant professor of psychology who has worked at Worcester State University for three years.When we are stressed, our body enters a state of hyperarousal, like a flight-or-fight response, which over long periods of time can lead to problems with high blood pressure, suppressed immune system, and an increased risk for insomnia, which is the difficulty of falling or staying asleep.”

But academic stress is not the only form of anxiety that contributes to why many college students struggle to sleep.

The scholarly article “Sleep difficulties in college students: The role of stress, affect and cognitive processes,” from the Psychiatry Research journal, describes how entering college includes a major life transition for most students, like leaving home, attending demanding classes that need a lot of attention, and encountering unfamiliar social situations. This article goes on to describe how research has revealed that increased emotional and academic stress can have severely negative impacts on sleep schedules, including fewer hours of sleep, increased numbers of sleep disturbances, and a greater difficulty in waking up in the early morning.

The Center of Disease Control, or CDC, recommends that young adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a day. Despite this, seven out of 10 college students do not sleep for the recommended amount of time. A lack of sleep can cause college students to struggle to successfully concentrate or take tests, as well as be generally sluggish. Other issues correlated with sleep deprivation are increased risks of diabetes, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease, and machinery or car crashes due to advanced tiredness.

Beyond physical dangers of sleep deprivation, it can also negatively impact a student’s ability to be successful with their studies.

“College students need to be able to concentrate in class, and if someone is running on little to no sleep, our brains aren’t able to concentrate and focus on the material, which can make it harder to remember what you learned in class,” said Hannah Millen, a 19-year-old resident assistant in Sheehan Hall studying nursing at Worcester State University. “This could cause a student’s grades to slip.”

Millen explained that many students end up skipping classes in order to catch up on sleep or because they feel exhausted, which can be detrimental to academic success. She added that she has observed more students being stressed and staying up late to study because of how many assignments are due in such a small time frame towards the end of the semester. Millen’s observations of how sleep deprivation can substantially inhibit academic success at the local level can also be seen at the national level.

“Sleep is particularly important for college students as a good night’s sleep is necessary for both brain and body health,” said Frazier. “Sleep deprivation, even pulling just one all-nighter, can make it more difficult to concentrate, more difficult to remember information, and can actually make it more difficult for your brain to learn. Some recent studies have directly linked poor sleep with lower grades and grade point averages.”

The scholarly article titled “Causes and Consequences of Sleepiness Among College Students,” which was published in Dove Medical Press, reported that sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness can be extremely problematic for college students. It can lead to lower grade point averages, an increased risk of academic failure, compromised learning, and impaired mood.

“When people don’t get enough sleep, they tend to be more short-tempered and irritable even when they don’t mean to be,” said Millen. “We’re at the age where we are still growing and sleep plays a huge role in our body’s development, so it’s always good to try and get the right amount.”

At Worcester State University and on campuses across the country, many students pull all-nighters to finish assignments or study for tests, though that is not always an effective tactic.

Research by J. Roxanne Prichard, an expert on college sleep issues, revealed that being awake for 16 hours causes brain function to decline. Being awake 20 hours causes people to perform in a drunken state. Based on the conducted research, the findings indicate that the main reason that students lack the necessary amount of sleep is due to stress, even before alcohol or caffeine consumption. College students suffering from anxiety, depression, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can have their conditions worsen due to sleep deprivation.

“If I go to bed thinking about homework or how much I have to do the next day I’ll end up laying in bed for an hour or two just thinking when I should be sleeping,” said Wynn. “Sometimes classes are hard to sit through and stay awake in, not because they’re boring, but because I’m so tired. So I’m not learning what I should be, which can affect my school work.”

Fortunately, there are ways to decrease sleep deprivation and avoid exhaustion. Students at Worcester State University have their own tricks to cope with the overwhelming workloads and stress in order to maximize the amount of time they get to sleep each night.

“I tend to make a lot of lists and plan out my week,” said Bellavance. “I plan it out to do two assignments each day to manage my time better and be able to get more sleep.”

Strategically scheduling when to do assignments so that they do not get completed at night is a tactic that other Worcester State University students also use in order to get more sleep. By completing assignments at a steady pace instead of the night before, students have more time left to get a sufficient amount of sleep. Wynn also relies on this practice to efficiently finish work at suitable times throughout the day to avoid working late into the night on papers and various assignments.

“I try to get a lot of homework done between classes,” said Wynn. “I know that, during the day, more work can be the last thing you want to do but powering through it during the day makes the nights less stressful and you can get more sleep. Also just clearing my mind before bed and taking slow deep breaths to calm my body usually helps me wind down and go to sleep faster.”

There are many ways that college students across the country can maximize the amount of sleep that they receive each night during this particularly stressful time in the semester. According to Everyday Health, it is important to skip alcohol and caffeine right before going to bed to be able to get more sleep. Another tip is to try avoiding activities like watching television, studying, working on a computer, or exercising near the time of sleep.

“I would recommend that students try to get as much sleep as they can,” said Millen. “Some nights you might have to stay up longer than others, so when you have the opportunity to go to bed early or take a nap, you should. Not only are you more productive the next day, but it’s good for you mentally as well.”

As a resident assistant who often gives advice to students on campus and personally struggles to balance her plentiful assignments and rigorous nursing exams with a healthy sleep schedule, Millen strongly recommends that students should try to complete or start their work the day that it is assigned. This would avoid completing the entirety of the assignment the night before and hindering sleep schedules.

“It is important to start healthy sleep patterns early on in the semester and try to maintain them the best that you can,” said Rosa. “Go to bed at the same time each night and avoid staying up late because it takes a couple of days to recover from that. Also, avoid using screens, like phones or laptops, before bed because it stimulates the mind and makes it harder to sleep.”

Rosa explained that naps can be beneficial to students, but only in moderation. Naps that span roughly 10 to 15 minutes can be helpful, but long naps interfere with obtaining sufficient sleep because students will be less tired at night.  

There are resources available for students struggling with sleep deprivation at Worcester State University. On campus, students can go to the Counseling Center to receive advice about how to manage stress or difficulty sleeping. Another resource is the Academic Success Center, where students can seek advice about how to cope with handling an increased amount of assignments with nearing due dates and exams to study for.

“I think that getting a good night’s sleep is important for college students,” said Woodford. “It’s important because we need to be awake enough and be well-rested to thoroughly complete our studies.”

Despite the growing trend at Worcester State University of students obtaining less sleep with the end of the semester and finals quickly approaching, many students still believe that sleep is beneficial for academic success and emotional stability. Locally and nationally, students like Wynn struggle with sleep deprivation due to an increase in academic assignments and stress, especially towards the end of the semester, but students continue to utilize various tactics and resources to combat this prominent trend.

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