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Sleep deprivation is accepted, even expected

Eight hours with your head on the pillow is a student’s fantasy
|Written By Charles Gillis
Sleep deprivation is accepted, even expected
Photo: Getty Images

The modern learning institution has evolved from the nine-to-five, brick-and-mortar structure of the past. With part-time programs, night, and weekend offerings, students now have more course options than ever. Empowered by the Internet, colleges and universities reach out to a global student body, 24 hours a day. For many law students, blended work and study schedules stretch around the clock. One might wonder when today’s students find enough time to get proper sleep. The reality for many is that they do not.

Not every law student is sleep deprived. Christopher Buchanan is an articling student at Miller Thomson LLP, and while at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, he made sleep a priority. “I had a firm deadline of 2 a.m. for sleep, especially the night before an exam.”

Although Buchanan was able to get an average of seven hours of sleep a night, he says his experience wasn’t the norm. Commenting on his peers he notes, “A lot of people had very erratic sleeping patterns, including lots of napping.”

There’s actually a lot of napping and often at inopportune moments. The exhausted student is not a new character on campus. Most students sleep less around exam time. Professor Jay Collier, an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State College of Denver, has seen his share of sleep-deprived students and recalls his own experience as a sleepy college student. Collier and his friends had many overnight study sessions at 24-hour restaurants. “We could hand our waitress $20 and say, ‘we’ll be here for the night studying unless it gets busy for you, in which case we’ll free up the table. All we’re asking is that you keep our coffee flowing.’”

The occasional all-nighter won’t ruin a semester, but an increasing number of students have a complete university experience affected by significant sleep deprivation. More students work in addition to taking classes, so it is not uncommon for a student to work a 10-hour day before taking a three-hour night class. Afterwards, they hit the books. The scholarly challenges facing law students are hard enough, and even more so for students functioning with a consistent sleep deficit.

Over the years Richard Leblanc, an adjunct at Osgoode Hall Law School and associate professor of governance law and ethics in the School of Administrative Studies at York University, has been struck by the number of students who had difficulty staying awake during class. Leblanc’s classroom presence does not lack energy, but a certain segment of his early morning students traditionally do.  When teaching a first-year class of 350 students, Leblanc noticed several who had difficulty staying awake for the second half of his three-hour class. To add to their struggles, construction shut down the nearby coffee shop.

Coffee is clearly the lifeblood of many students, and denial of this vital resource was enough to make some wake up long enough to complain. Leblanc actually brought in coffee to supplement the quantities brought in by students. Thermoses soon became regular accessories for many students. “I see lots of coffee and I’m starting to see a few energy drinks,” Leblanc says when discussing the coping mechanisms for combating fatigue. While students wired on caffeine furiously scribble notes, he wonders if their retention is somehow compromised.

Dr. Randall Friese, associate professor of surgery at the University of Arizona College of Medicine wonders as well. Friese is well acquainted with the impact of sleep deprivation and published a study that showed the health impacts of insufficient sleep on hospital patients in the ICU. He points to other studies which link long-term sleep deprivation to frequency of illness, memory problems, and even long-term health consequences.

“It’s certainly been postulated that sleep has a connection to learning and long-term association. Prolonged periods of sleep deprivation on some people can even have the same impacts as intoxication — including impaired judgment and slower reaction time,” he says.

As a professor, Friese deals with many overworked medical students. His students are required to be on call for certain rotations so they are often kept up late shadowing the doctors. These students, however, are limited to 30 hours in the hospital and must leave the facility between shifts. In the past, medical students worked longer periods of time, but eventually the medical community realized that past a certain point, the value of the time was limited. It’s the same principle for any student, says Friese. If a person fails to get adequate sleep, they will fail to retain what they learned.

Professors like Collier, Friese, and Leblanc are sympathetic to the plight of students. Collier strongly encourages study groups and recommends students pace themselves throughout the semester, bracing for the busy times while taking full advantage of the downtimes. Leblanc thinks at some point the issue should be addressed by schools and the faculty as well.

“This is an area that academics need to think about,” says Leblanc. “Universities should have more discussion on the topics. We need to pay more attention to the extremes. It’s time to have a discussion about class times and the continuous, 24-hour-a-day schedules.”

The question remains on how little sleep is too little. Most students will remember the many sleepless nights of university, but they may not remember their lessons. One thing is for certain: at present there seems to be no immediate solution to the lack of sleep on campus. One of Collier’s students summed up the sentiment held by many: “With everything on my plate a full night’s sleep is only a fantasy.”

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