Online education and improved sleep should go hand in hand, right? After all, once you take the commute out of school, every student gains back a little bit of time in the morning. I know I would use it for a few extra minutes of snooze time. Speaking frankly, I’ve been motivated to telecommute for my entire adult life just to grab those extra minutes of snooze every day. Seems silly, but all those glorious extra seconds of early morning rest can really add up. You know what else adds up? Sleep deprivation. And apparently, we’re all drowning in it, especially online students.
But why is that? Shouldn’t the growing popularity of online classes improve our well-publicized public health crisis of student sleep deprivation? Well, it turns out it’s not as simple as that. The time we spend staring at our screens is altering our lifestyles and our brain chemistry in ways that directly impact our circadian rhythms. But online education is also a tremendously convenient and valuable option for countless students. So what can we do to improve our sleep habits so that we can actually make the most of remote learning?
A clear correlation exists between sleep and cognitive function. Our ability to process new information, act on existing information, and perform to the height of our intellectual capabilities depends at least in part on both the quality and quantity of our sleep.
And it turns out that you’ll gain intellectual benefits from the learning that occurs both before and after a good night’s sleep. It stands to reason that waking up well-rested and attacking your day with fresh eyes can produce better learning.
According to the National Institutes of Health,
‘We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories,’ says Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
A well-rested mind is a mind that is better prepared to engage new subject matter and respond to this subject matter by stimulating new neural pathways. But it also matters that you get a good night’s sleep after forging all of those new neural pathways.
According to Healthy Sleep,
Researchers now hypothesize that slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is deep, restorative sleep, also plays a significant role in declarative memory by processing and consolidating newly acquired information.
Sleep helps you both prepare for learning and, subsequently, helps you to cement the impact of that learning. When we are well rested, we are better at assigning meaning to experiences, forming lasting memories, and applying the resulting knowledge to future learning opportunities.
At the height of the pandemic, American education was forced en masse into online learning. This was an entirely new experience for students at every level. The results for those newly thrust into this experience were mixed. It goes without saying that access to education and engagement of any kind was valuable during this time of isolation, anxiety and uncertainty. But students also struggled to gain a foothold in a dramatically less structured learning environment. And as the structure fell by the wayside, it left several casualties in its wake, including, for many students, a controlled sleeping schedule.
According to Science Daily,
students learning remotely in the summer 2020 session went to bed an average of 30 minutes later than pre-pandemic students. They slept less efficiently, less at night and more during the day, but did not sleep more overall despite having no early classes and 44 per cent fewer work days compared to students in previous semesters.
This is at least partially due to the change in lifestyle that occurs when a student moves from the classroom to the virtual space. As most students who experienced this shift over the last two years can attest, once familiar routines were dashed to pieces. In their place, many students have succumbed to a sort of academic listlessness, a feeling that the rigid structure of the school bell no longer applies. This feeling can bleed into nighttime habits, reducing the urgency that some students might feel to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
As a result, the amount of sleep time students might gain back in the morning is frequently eclipsed by lost sleep just before bed. If, like yours truly, you already happen to be a night owl, this may be an optimal arrangement. On the other hand, if you’re the type who’s accustomed to getting up early (and some day, you’ll have to explain how that works to me), it’s likely you’ve actually lost precious moments of rest since moving to online education.
And regardless of your unique circadian rhythms, there are scientific reasons why each and every one of us is likely to lose sleep—if not in quantity, certainly in quality—because of the increased time spent online. Sleep Health Solutions notes that
electronic devices emit artificial blue light that suppresses the amount of melatonin released in the body. This is how the natural circadian rhythm is disrupted by time spent on computers, mobile phones, and in front of the television. Plus, spending the day indoors and staying up late with the lights on, adds to our exposure to artificial light. In the long-term, difficulty falling and staying asleep leads to sleep deprivation which increases the risk of other real health problems.
Sleep Health Solutions actually quantifies the sleep loss as a consequence of this exposure, noting that young children lose an average of 15 minutes for every hour spent on the tablet while teens trade an average of 26 minutes of sleep every night for screen-related activities. The consequences for teens and adults alike are increased rates of insomnia, depression, and disrupted REM-cycle sleep.
The two biggest contributors to lost sleep for online students are the general disruption to long-established routine; and the actual impact of extended screen time on the human brain. But there are a few constructive lifestyle changes you can make to resist these impacts.
If you aren’t getting your structure from school, it’s up to you to create that structure. Build a routine with designated times for wake-up, meals, classes, and breaks. This is especially valuable advice for students who attend pre-taped lectures, engage in class discussions through message boards, or otherwise complete course requirements on their own time. The Strand advises
Having a schedule for asynchronous lectures to avoid procrastination and all-nighters.
Fresh air and sunshine are critical to your health and well-being. You may take for granted just how beneficial it is to step outside every morning and begin your commute to school. According to Science Daily, psychology professor Ralph Mistlberger of Simon Fraser University’s Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Lab advises
students and anybody working from home…to try to get outside and be active early in the day because the morning light helps stabilize your circadian sleep-wake cycle – this should improve your sleep, and allow you to feel more rested and energized during the day.
The Strand notes that
adhering to a regular exercise routine contributes to better sleep and better overall health. There are also clearly established connections between physical activity and mental acuity. So as long as you’re building your schedule, make sure that you’ve carved out a space for your daily workout.
Sleep Health Solutions notes that the artificial blue light emanating from your various devices actually alters your brainwaves in ways that make you less prepared for sleep and less prone to high quality sleep. The earlier in the evening you unplug from your devices, the more likely you are to sleep, and sleep well. Set a time to disconnect from your computer, phone, and television. If you enjoy reading before bed, it may be time to reacquaint yourself with your print library.
Seems obvious, but in the absence of a structured schedule, we tend to use our time less efficiently. Those wasted extra minutes usually get pushed to the end of the day, which means they cut directly into our sleep time. Don’t consider your designated bedtime optional. Lock it in, and stick to it. Stay on your routine, and your body and mind will thank you by achieving peak academic performance.
Clearly, we’ve established the importance of a good night’s sleep. But there’s more to making the most of online learning. At the very least, online college can offer a convenient alternative to the traditional classroom experience. At its best, online college can actually create opportunity and access for those who might not otherwise have the chance to achieve their educational and professional goals. With this in mind, we invite you to check out 5 Ways Online Education Can Be More Effective Than Traditional Classroom Education.
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