Healthy Living

The Surprising Way Colleges Are Helping Their Students Sleep More

The whole point of this class is to fall asleep.
04/20/2016 08:21am ET
Chris Ryan via Getty Images
University of Missouri, Stanford University, and New York University all offer courses on sleep.

Multiple studies have shown adequate sleep for college-age students is about eight hours a night, yet as many as 70 percent of college students don't get that much shuteye.

Experts and students agree the trend is not good -- and there’s plenty of research to back up that claim. In response, some institutions are putting sleep on the curriculum with classes designed to teach students the basic neuroscience behind sleep and how it affects both physical and mental functions of our well being in our daily lives. It's a growing trend that includes the University of Missouri, Stanford University, and New York University.

While some of the classes are recent -- NYU first started offering their sleep course in 2012 -- others are older. Stanford's course, "Sleep and Dreams," was one of the first of its kind in the country and has been offered since 1970. (It's worth noting, though, that the demand for Stanford's course has grown so much in recent years that it is now taught twice a year and is capped at 210 students per session, said instructor Rafael Pelayo, a clinical professor in the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine. "We have a waiting list of students.")

Students want to learn about sleep

“Sleep behavior is inherently interesting. Students want to learn about it -- even though they do it every night, it’s a mystery to them,” said Dennis Miller, an associate professor of graduate and undergraduate studies in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri who teaches a course called "Sleep and Sleep Disorders." “Students learn a lot about themselves through the class; they gain insight into their own sleep behavior and about managing their daily lives better.”

Missouri offers the sleep class as an online course to any undergraduate student enrolled at the school and students enrolled in one of the university’s web-based Mizzou Online degree programs. The course is designed to teach students about the science of sleep, as well as its applications to students’ daily lives, Miller explained. Students learn what happens to the brain and the body when we sleep, what common sleep disorders are, and how sleep disorders are managed and treated.

Students learn about sleep science, hygiene, evolution, and dreams

NYU's sleep course, "While You Were Sleeping" was inspired in part by the success of the course at Stanford, said Jess Shatkin, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and pediatrics at the NYU School of Medicine. In addition to covering the science of sleep and how students can better manage their own sleep, Shatkin's course also touches on the evolution of sleep, sleep disorders and treatments, and dreams, he explained.

“I wanted to build a class that was solid academically, but still fun,” Shatkin said. The course is structured so that students first learn about the science of sleep, then they learn about what happens to the body during sleep and the consequences of going without. Then, later in the course, they learn about sleep hygiene -- and everything they can do to actually get better sleep, he said.

“We talk about everything from caffeine use and the role of exercise to what temperature your bedroom should be,” Shatkin explained. “And we teach relaxation exercises -- meditation and breathing techniques -- to help them fall asleep.”

“I learned basically everything about sleep”

Cynthia Haddad, who graduated from NYU in 2015 and took the course over the summer of 2013, signed up because it was cross-listed under a minor she planned to pursue.

“I leaned basically everything about the significance of sleep,” Haddad told HuffPost. “We learned about how sleep affects our bodies. … We learned about how sleep affects us in our waking hours -- the brain, the body, emotionally.

“The course absolutely changed my sleep habits”

- Cynthia Haddad, former student of NYU's "While You Were Sleeping" course

“The course absolutely changed my sleep habits,” Haddad added. “I learned the following and try to keep to these rules: Do not use devices up to an hour before bed; no caffeine past noon; and use the bed only for sleep and sex -- so that when you get into bed, your body knows it wants to sleep.”

Students sleep 22 minutes longer

Haddad was not the only one who slept better after the course. To determine how effective the lesson plans were in actually improving sleep quality among students in the course, Shatkin and his colleagues compared sleep quantity and quality between NYU students enrolled in the class in the fall 2014 semester and NYU students enrolled in coursework other than the sleep course. They found sleep for the students taking “While You Were Sleeping” did, in fact, improve.

Students enrolled in the sleep course slept 22 minutes longer per night on average two months after taking the course compared with their sleep before the course, and the students fell asleep nine minutes faster per night after the course, according to the findings, which were presented at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's annual meeting last year. And better sleep hygiene for all of the students was associated with fewer depressive symptoms -- meaning the results imply that the course, by improving sleep, could also help decrease depression and anxiety, Shatkin said.

Based on these findings, Shatkin and his colleagues hope to design a four-hour workshop that will focus on a similar teaching objective, but in a condensed format that can also help students improve their sleep.

The semester-long version of the class is planned to continue regardless. It is offered once a year, open to all undergraduate students, and typically enrolls between 150 and 250 students, depending on the number of seats in the lecture hall available, Shatkin said.

Does your college have a sleep course? Tell us about it by contacting Sarah DiGiulio, The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter at sarah.digiulio@huffingtonpost.com.

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