My cousin's wife used to teach elsewhere on campus. At a family get-together one day, she observed, "one of my students says he has you for a class, and in class you're hoping and running around like crazy. I couldn't believe he was talking about you."

Well, I could only humbly respond that while outside of class I do indeed appear to be the pinnacle of a serene and reserved scholar, when I get to class--it's performance time! And why do I need to perform? One reason only: to keep you from nodding off.

I believe that the greatest single roadblock to learning during class is sleep. And most of the time, unless you're snoring down in front, I have to sympathize a little. Once I took a class with only three people in it, and yet I just couldn't keep from falling asleep. It was embarrassing, but I was overpowered by a higher authority. The sleep reflex.

The problem is, we don't get enough sleep, especially high school and college age students. According to James Maas, a Cornell University sleep expert, most sleep-deprived of all ages are students ages 17 to 25. At the same time, biologically, we need more sleep at this age than at any other except baby-hood.

But who has time for a morning and afternoon nap? Between our jobs, our activities, our study, our classes, our bars and our dates, nighty-night seems like such a waste of time. No wonder I see snoozers surrounded by books in the library, papers in the union or even my crazy presence in class.

We read of powerhouses who can get by on three hours of sleep a night, or four, but you have to wonder how much of their days are spent zombie-esque, or cat-napping. Biologically we need about nine hours a night. Used to be simple. Your medieval college student monk had no table lamps or institutional florescence to extend the evening. And no noisome alarm to chop short the night. Instead the student day would end at nightfall, and begin at sunrise. At the equator that's about nine hours.

How long would you sleep if you had no alarm, no clock, no day and night. Researchers have studied this, of course. They find that in sleep laboratories, adults will generally settle in at about 8 to 8 1/2 hours a night, regardless of outside cues.
Unfortunately, many of us are settling in at six, while college students are supposed to get 10. So we accumulate a four-hour sleep debt every night. Consequences are more than just falling asleep in class or boring parties. If you're sleepy you're not as alert, can't remember as well, impair your judgment and reaction time. Surprising it's even legal.

Add alcohol, as so many students do, and you're really sliding. Research has shown that a student with typical sleep debt can drink one beer, and feel the effects of a six-pack. But would you drive home after just one? Of course you would.

In fact, the federal Department of Transportation estimates that each year 200,000 reported car accidents are sleep-related. Most of us can recall someone we know or know of who crashed after falling asleep. Lots of other walking zombies are operating heavy machinery, operating on patients, piloting commercial jets and monitoring your neighborhood nuclear plant. Most sleep-deprived are those on the night shift, biological clocks out of phase, who also try to join in with family or friends during the daytime, according to syndicated health columnist Jane Brody.

So the obvious advice? Sleep comes first. I've discovered this myself since college—I can probably get twice as much accomplished in my awake time if I'm rested and concentrating than if I'm sleepy and mentally wandering. So "no time for sleep" really means "no time for sleep 'cuz I'm too zonked to get things done."

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>