*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on ScienceDaily.
Two MIT professors have found a strong relationship between students’ grades and how much sleep they’re getting. What time students go to bed and the consistency of their sleep habits also make a big difference. And no, getting a good night’s sleep just before a big test is not good enough — it takes several nights in a row of good sleep to make a difference.
Those are among the conclusions from an experiment in which 100 students in an MIT engineering class were given Fitbits, the popular wrist-worn devices that track a person’s activity 24/7, in exchange for the researchers’ access to a semester’s worth of their activity data. The findings — some unsurprising, but some quite unexpected — are reported in the journal Science of Learning in a paper by MIT postdoc Kana Okano, professors Jeffrey Grossman and John Gabrieli, and two others.
One of the surprises was that individuals who went to bed after some particular threshold time — for these students, that tended to be 2 a.m., but it varied from one person to another — tended to perform less well on their tests no matter how much total sleep they ended up getting.
“Of course, we knew already that more sleep would be beneficial to classroom performance, from a number of previous studies that relied on subjective measures like self-report surveys,” Grossman says. “But in this study the benefits of sleep are correlated to performance in the context of a real-life college course, and driven by large amounts of objective data collection.”
The study also revealed no improvement in scores for those who made sure to get a good night’s sleep right before a big test. According to the data, “the night before doesn’t matter,” Grossman says. “We’ve heard the phrase ‘Get a good night’s sleep, you’ve got a big day tomorrow.’ It turns out this does not correlate at all with test performance. Instead, it’s the sleep you get during the days when learning is happening that matter most.”
Quality of sleep also mattered, not just quantity. For example, those who got relatively consistent amounts of sleep each night did better than those who had greater variations from one night to the next, even if they ended up with the same average amount.
This research also helped to provide an explanation for something that Grossman says he had noticed and wondered about for years, which is that on average, the women in his class have consistently gotten better grades than the men. Now, he has a possible answer: The data show that the differences in quantity and quality of sleep can fully account for the differences in grades. “If we correct for sleep, men and women do the same in class. So sleep could be the explanation for the gender difference in our class,” he says.