sleep and university students

Sleep and students

Sleep is important for academic success! Check out this blog that looks at sleep and university students and provides both assessment and intervention ideas for occupational therapists working with students.

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Sleep and academics

Poor quality and quantity of sleep results in decreased academic performance in university students. But, many students, when asked, do not seem to understand the connection between sleep and academics.1   In fact, university/college students with sleep difficulties have been found to have lower rates of retention and success.2  One hypothesis is that students with less sleep may feel less self-efficacy (motivation) and are consequently less likely to choose a task that is deemed difficult.2 This is important for health since people who lack sleep are less likely to participate in health-enhancing activities like physical activity.3

Sleep info and assessments

If you want other general information on sleep – it was the topic of a previous blog. Check it out here!

Interventions for sleep

Interventions for enhancing sleep in university or college students:4,5,6,7


  • Discuss the importance of sleep for cognitive and physiological needs (especially academics);
  • Describe the physiology of sleep – phases of sleep and circadian rhythms;
  • Talk about the right amount of sleep (7-9 hours is the recommended for most adults);
  • Discuss healthy eating and sleep (eating well, timing of meals, etc.);
  • Talk about the benefits of physical activity and sleep and timing for physical activity;
  • Describe the use of technology and how it influences sleep;
  • Discuss the impact of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine use on sleep (cut-off times);
  • Talk about the impact of stress on sleep.

Environmental strategies

Remember context modification concepts – click here to learn more!

  • Help the student set-up a sleep-conducive environment, be sure to discuss how to manage roommate behavior. Some suggestions to modify the environment:

Behavioral strategies

  • Check out this previous blog on habits and routines, this will help put these behavioral strategies into context – use implementation intentions and context modifications!
  • Collaborate with the student to develop regular sleep hygiene.8,9 Check out this great handout here!
  • Provide instructions for time in bed.
    • Student should expect to fall asleep within 20-30 minutes; and, if they do not they should get up and do something quiet until sleepiness returns (reading, listening to quiet music, etc).
  • Discuss cognitive strategies to reduce maladaptive sleep beliefs.
  • Discuss alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine use: student should not drink alcohol with 2-3 hours before bed and may need a cut-off time for caffeine.
  • Help student set-up sleep stimulus strategies within current living environment (dimming lights, taking a bath, etc.).
  • Talk about the importance of scheduling consistent sleep/wake times.
  • Discuss with student not to use bed for anything except sleep and sex; if the student must study in bed, instruct them to sit at edge of bed instead of lying in bed.
  • Students should limit daytime naps (if they must nap – a nap should be no longer than 20-30 minutes).
  • Student should exercise regularly but not within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Talk about eating regular meals; in addition, they should avoid going to bed hungry or eating a heavy meal before bedtime.
  • Discuss the importance of avoiding excessive liquids in evening.
  • Talk about how to address stress and anxiety; and, review strategies that can address daily worries so they aren’t taken to bed. For example, using a journal is a great option for reducing anxiety.
  • Help student learn how to use relaxation techniques and/or mindfulness for stress.


  1. Orzech, K.M., Salafsky, D. B., Hamilton, L.A. (2011).  The state of sleep among college students at a large public university.  Journal of American College Health, 59(7), 612-619. 
  2. Gaultney, J. F. (2016).  Risk for sleep disorder measured during students’ first college semester may predict institutional retention and grade point average over a 3-year period, with indirect effects through self-efficacy. Journal of College Student Retention:  Research, theory, & practice, 18(3), 333-359.  doi:10.1177/1521025115622784
  3. Gyurcsik, N. C., Bray, S. R., Brittain, D. R. (2004).  Coping with barriers to vigorous physical activity during transition to university.  Family Community Health, 27(2), 130-142. 
  4. Fucito, L. M., DeMartini, K.S., Hanrahan, T.H., Yaggi, H.K., Heffem, C., & Redeler, N.S. (2017).  Using sleep interventions to engage and treat heavy-drinking college students:  A randomized pilot study.  Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 41(4), 798-809.
  5. Gellis LA, Arigo D, Elliott JC (2013) Cognitive refocusing treatment for insomnia: a randomized controlled trial in university students. Behav Ther, 44, 100–110.
  6. Kloss JD, Nash CO, Horsey SE, Taylor DJ (2011) The delivery of behavioral sleep medicine to college students. J Adolesc Health, 48, 553–561.
  7. Trockel M, Manber R, Chang V, Thurston A, Taylor CB (2011) An email delivered CBT for sleep-health program for college students: Effects on sleep quality and depression symptoms. J Clin Sleep Med, 7, 276–281.
  8. Stepanski EJ, Wyatt JK (2003) Use of sleep hygiene in the treatment of insomnia. Sleep Med Rev, 7, 215–225.
  9. Todd, J. & Mullan, B. (2013).  The role of self-regulation in predicting sleep hygiene in university students.  Psychology, Health, and medicine, 18(3), 275-288. doi:10.1080/13548506.2012.701756

Cover photo courtesy of Elgin Air Force Base:

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