Lack of sleep leaving students the equivalent of 'drunk' in exams

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Stressed out students are swapping sleep for studying and turning up to exams the equivalent of being "legally drunk".

Exam stress and cramming is leading to extreme sleep deprivation and significant cognitive impairment.

Human behaviour and emotional intelligence expert Amy Jacobson said the National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers aged from 14 to 17 have eight to 10 hours of sleep per night and young adults (and adults) have seven to nine hours of nightly sleep.

"Sleep studies reveal that teenagers on average have six  to 7.5 of a sleep per night during the week," Ms Jacobson said.

"And data from American studies performed at universities showed the total average of sleep on a typical night was 6.7 hours compared to during exam season of 5.7 hours.

"On average, most students slept 3.5 hours less during exam period taking many under five hours sleep per night."

Pulling an all-nighter to cram for exams, or getting less than five hours sleep per night, can have significant impacts.

"There seems to be a cultural impact that makes students believe that 'pulling an all-nighter' is like a badge of honour or a rite of passage in university," she said.

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"However, extensive research (examining driving performance) also details that functioning for 18 hours straight or on average 5 hours or less of sleep per night, causes equivalent cognitive impairment as being legally drunk." 

So while, students are thinking they're doing the right thing by cramming all night they're doing more harm than good.

"Cognitive impairment has been defined as when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life," she said.

"Based on this definition, we can see how all of these areas directly impact the core skills required for any exam and, in turn, the results.

"These core cognitive skills aren't just applicable for driving a motor vehicle, they are heavily involved in sitting exams and really everything we do."

And it's not just studying through the night that can impact on the hours of sleep teens and young adults are getting each night. Also impacting sleep is a change in teenagers' body clocks, mental health issues, such as anxiety and fear of failure, diet, exercise and social media use.

Parents need to look out for warning signs so they can help their kids navigate this stressful period and get the eight to ten hours of sleep each night needed to perform at their best.

"Any signs of mental health factors or change in emotions should be a sign to have a conversation and check how they're coping," she said.

"It's important to offer support to the students whether that be emotional support, dietary (food and drink preparation) support or environmental support."

These are her top five exam tips for students:

1. Structure and plan for your study and exams 

Know what your end goals are and what it will take to achieve them. Set up study periods with clearly defined start and finish times. And keep to set sleep times to ensure you get 8-10 hours sleep each night.

2.  Create a sleep routine

This could include taking a shower, having a hot chocolate, listening to music or meditation. The key is for the routine to relax your muscles and mind. Consistency and repetition is important.

3. Breathing techniques

While this seems too easy and simple, it's been proven to work. One of the most common breathing techniques is the 4x4x4x4 method. This is performed by breathing in, for the count of four, holding your breath, for the count of four, breathing out, for count of four, and holding again, for the count of four, - then repeating. This helps to slow down your blood pressure and breathing, and clears your mind, ready for sleep.

4. Turn your phone off

Minimise electronic usage and charge, and store phones, iPads and laptops, away from your bed. Electronics are known for keeping minds active and there are also concerns that radiation from devices impact on the ability to get a good night sleep.

5. Leverage the mind performance through its circadian cycle

Each cycle goes for 90-120 minutes, with the mind requiring a 20-minute break to reset. Plan your study periods as 90-120 minute cycles knowing that you are leveraging the peak performance of your mind during each cycle, then allow it to take a break and reset ready to reach its peak performance again.