"To Sleep, Perchance to Learn..?"

In the November edition of Phi Delta Kappan, Dr. Emma K. Adam (Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development & Social Policy at Northwestern), offers a wake-up call to parents, students and teachers  on the subject of stress. She highlights the powerful connection between the hormone cortisol, stress, and sleep. She identifies a vicious cycle that is harmful to learning and to health. As she puts it:

 “… if you’re under a lot of stress during the day, then your cortisol level stays elevated at night. That causes you to sleep more lightly, which prevents you from fully processing what you’’e learned. Further if you produce more cortisol at night, while you’re sleeping, then your cortisol level tends to be lower in the morning, which means you don’t get that initial burst of energy that’’ so important for waking up and preparing for the day. Then because you’re groggy, you can’t focus so well, which makes you stressed out. In short, it’s a vicious cycle: stress causes students’ cortisol levels to rise, which causes poor sleep, which causes fatigue, which impairs learning, which causes stress.” 

And if that isn’t enough to raise an eyebrow, imagine if the cortisol / sleep / stress cycle could be connected to student learning outputs like test scores:

“A couple of years ago my team conducted a research project in a Charter school in New Orleans. We measured students’ cortisol levels three times: once during a regular week of classes, once right before students took in-school tests, and one right before students took the State high stakes standardized exam”.

And guess what they found:

“Cortisol levels spiked the most before the State exam, and those levels strongly predicted students’ scores. The students who did the worst on the exam were those whose cortisol levels didn’t rise at all (suggesting very low engagement in the test) and those whose cortisol rose the most (suggesting a high level of stress). Those whose cortisol rose modestly performed the best, which is not surprising, given that a small increase in cortisol gives you a boost of energy and concentration, without pushing you into threat response mode. And the difference in test scores was pretty significant, especially for Math”.

Of course, “doing better” or “doing worse” is all relative. But Dr. Adam was able to put this into numbers:

We found that students with high levels of cortisol scored .4 standard deviations lower than those with modest levels – by way of illustration, that is equivalent to scoring 80 points lower on the SAT“.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone told me that my son might underperform on his SAT by up to 80 points because he was staying up too late and wasn’t sleeping properly, I might decide to do something about that!

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