Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning (ATL) holds a series of lectures every semester titled “Seminars for Excellence in Teaching.” These seminars help graduate student teachers, tenured professors, and everyone in between to meet the university’s historic expectations for teaching in the classroom. These are my accounts.
After a long morning that included a trip to West for some freshly baked kolaches (and resulted in me wearing a beanie all day), I attended an afternoon seminar entitled “Bad Sleep in Good Students: Costs to Learning and Recommendations for Instructors.” This particular session caught my eye not because I have a class of sleepy students, but because I’ve recently found myself yawning along to their same undergrad tune. Dr. Michael Scullin, who came to Baylor two years ago and started a graduate student peer review journal, was my host for the afternoon.
There have obviously been a multitude of studies researching sleep and its effects on the human brain, a good number of them done by Dr. Scullin and his Baylor associates at the campus’s Sleep Lab. Because of these studies, we now know more about this vital organ than ever before and continue to uncover its amazing abilities. Despite contrary belief, the brain does not shut down when we are sleeping. During our dreams, the brain is restoring and preparing for the next day. Memories that are made during the day are replaying subconsciously as the brain tries to remember their important details.
The talk was actually less about what the brain does while we are sleeping, but more about what it fails to do without a good night’s rest. Sleep loss, which is when someone doesn’t make it to the recommended sleep duration of 7-9 hours/night, primarily affects the prefrontal cortex. If you forget your high school anatomy class like me, I’ll remind just as Dr. Scullin did that the prefrontal cortex is directly behind your left temple. More importantly, its main functions are reasoning, concentrating, problem-solving, and encoding memory – essentially, everything that makes a good pupil. Without a proper night’s shuteye, the prefrontal cortex will be just as tired and as unable to perform as us.
Dr. Scullin went on to discuss different problems that college students face when trying to go to sleep (some their own doing and some evolution’s doing). Most of us, not just college students, get into bed, turn off the light, and grab our smartphones or tablets. This is a big no-no. The bright light from these devices, including TV screens, tells the brain that the sun is about to come up and that we should, as well. In scientific terms, the light decreases melatonin production, which then in turn unsynchronizes our circadian cycles, which then in turn forces us to stay up all night finishing season 5 of Game of Thrones for the sixth time.
It has been proven that young adults are on a different biological clock than their professors. This makes complete sense when I think about how I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning during my undergraduate years watching the antics of Craig Ferguson on late night TV, but now can barely make it to the evening news. Dr. Scullin suggested eliminating 8:00 am classes, which an approximate 40% of BU students are enrolled in, because of this very reason that is no one’s fault but our evolutionary process.
Dr. Scullin then provided tips for professors to give to their students and signs to look for in a tired pupil. He reminded us that students may not be doing well not because they are unintelligent, but because their poor sleep habits are finally catching up to them. He concluded by saying that it is nearly impossible for someone to catch up on sleep on the weekend, that we should stay far away from coffee after lunch, and that when you wear a beanie everyone knows it’s because you didn’t shower.
Even with a lifetime of sleeping experience, it seems that I still have some learning to do!
Check out the full schedule of ATL’s Seminars in Excellence for Teaching.
By Matthew Doyen
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