Are Sleepy Students Learning?

Daniel T. Willingham:

How does the mind work–and especially how does it learn? Teachers’ instructional decisions are based on a mix of theories learned in teacher education, trial and error, craft knowledge, and gut instinct. Such knowledge often serves us well, but is there anything sturdier to rely on?
Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology who seek to understand the mind. In this regular American Educator column, we consider findings from this field that are strong and clear enough to merit class- room application.
Question: Some of my students seem really sleepy–they stifle yawns and struggle to keep tired eyes open–especially in the morning. This can’t be good for their learning, right? Is there any- thing I can do to help these students?
Answer: Sleep is indeed essential to learning, and US teenag- ers (and teenagers in most industrialized countries) don’t get enough. Although recent work shows there is a strong biological reason that teens tend not to sleep enough, there is some good news in this research. First, the impact on learning, although quite real, does not appear to be as drastic as we might fear. Second, the sleep deficit teens tend to run is not inevitable; with some plan- ning, they can get more shuteye.