Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

  • News
  • Teaching, Research, and Counting Sheep: Sleep In and Out of Your Classes

Teaching, Research, and Counting Sheep: Sleep In and Out of Your Classes

24 Jul 2020 3:31 AM | Anonymous

By: Manpreet Rai, Ph.D., D'Youville College

Many of you have undoubtedly taken a quick laugh break through This is my shameless plug for the comic that got me through grad school. There is no shortage of comics relating to sleep or lack thereof in this collection of comics. As with many comics, these have a hint of truth to them. It is no surprise, as the research shows, that grad students don’t get enough sleep (Alan et al., 2020; Oswalt & Wyatt, 2015). Not only is the quantity of sleep impacted, but so is the quality as grad students juggle several responsibilities: their own classes, research, families, and teaching, to name a few. In the midst of a pandemic, these sleep problems can be further exacerbated as stress and anxiety increase (Altena et al., 2020; Sher, 2020). Given these intertwining issues, the purpose of this post is to help two-fold:

  1. How to sleep better as busy students.
  2. How to incorporate sleep activities/concepts to any psychology class you’re teaching.

(Part 1) Let’s start with a checklist to sleep better.

Sleep Hygiene (health and environmental factors)

  • Keep regular sleep hours
    • An erratic sleep schedule messes up your circadian rhythm and can make getting a full night’s sleep more difficult
    • Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning (even on weekends and vacations)
    • Avoid oversleeping or lying in bed for prolonged periods of time after your sleep is completed
  • Maintain a regular physical activity routine
    • 20-30 minutes daily. This doesn’t have to be rigorous. A simple walk in your neighborhood counts.
    • Physical activity helps with stress and with sleep quality, especially N-REM Stage 3.
  • Don’t forget your diet
    • Finish dinner at least 2 hours before sleeping
    • Avoid eating large meals before bed or too much junk food
    • Do not go to bed hungry or full
    • Take care to eat appropriately during the working/waking time (that means don’t forget breakfast or skip lunch!)
    • Avoid alcohol and caffeine at least 4 hours before bed
    • Avoid over the counter medications that cause sleep problems
  • Establish regular routine and sleeping environment
    • Brush teeth, change clothes, comfortable sleep wear, use the bathroom
    • Relaxing Routine
    • Warm bath/shower
    • Quiet activities
    • Lower lights
    • Limit technology and remove technology from sleeping environment (no television or phone 30 minutes before bed)
    • Use room-darkening curtains
    • Ensure a dark, quiet, cool environment (temperature between 60-72 °F or 20-22 °C)

Stress Management (techniques to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety)

  • Try stress management strategies that work for you: mindfulness, yoga, relaxation, breathing exercises. (CALM app) warm bath; herbal tea; dim light; reading; music
  • Establish regular routine
  • Limit news intake, especially before bed (especially when we’re overwhelmed with so many different stories, making it hard to distinguish real from fake)
  • Talk about and share dreams you’ve had with others. This self-disclosure builds empathy and relationships, both which actually help sleep.
  • Don’t ruminate
  • Focus on what you can control, and don’t worry about what you can’t
  • Work on emotion regulation. You can actually rehearse what you want to dream, impacting a "dream simulation" in a positive way.
  • Spend time during the day outside in sunlight
  • Ensure your home and work environment lets lots of daylight in 
  • Keep connected to others (live games on Zoom/Skype; check in with others; write a gratitude journal; faith and social clubs)
  • Engage in hobbies (art, music, puzzles etc.)
  • Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles (Create three columns to write out initial concern, why that creates a perceived fear, and finally a reasonable solution for it).
  • Have hope! We’re in this together!

(Part 2) Incorporating sleep concepts in your classes

From the above list of how you can help your own sleep, perhaps you have noticed several themes throughout that relate to different topics within psychology. Sleep education programs exist to help students sleep better (Brown et al, 2002; Blunden, & Rigney, 2015; Tanaka et. al, 2016), but they will not actually learn about the intricacies of sleep itself. Deficiencies in sleep quality and quantity can impact student performance at the academic and social/extracurricular levels (Gilbert & Weaver, 2010; Hershner & O’Brien, 2018; Lowry et al., 2015). However, there are few - if any - explicit ways in which students have devoted time to address their own sleep and understanding of sleep itself. Hence the need for a “Psychology of Sleep” class is as important as ever. From my anecdotal interaction with students, sleep is a topic that comes up a lot in various classes, and even in meetings in general.

As such, in general psychology classes, you can have students complete a sleep journal using validated sleep scales (i.e., from the national sleep foundation, RUSH sleep scale, or the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (Johns, 1991) to name a few). Further, students who have fitness trackers can track their waking and sleeping activities that speak to how sleep was impacted across several days or weeks. The whole class can do a sleep challenge where you as the instructor or GTA can participate as well.

In classes where time does not allow for a full self-sleep study with accompanying assignment throughout the semester, you can incorporate this topic into lectures. For example: how sleep impacts memory, learning, consciousness, lifespan development, cognition in general, emotion and motivation, work (I/O psychology), sensation and perception, clinical psychology, health psychology, biological/neuropsychology, drugs and behavior, physiological psychology, forensic psychology, consumer behavior, personality, social psychology and more. As psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes, sleep can speak to all of these processes via the biopsychosocial model in general. As such, it could be a theme throughout any course for the entire semester.

The moral of the story is that sleep is important for all, including graduate students, to be used both personally and professionally. As the comic below says…let’s all be human!


Allen, H. K., Barrall, A. L., Vincent, K. B., & Arria, A. M. (2020). Stress and Burnout Among Graduate Students: Moderation by Sleep Duration and Quality. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1-8.

Altena, E., Baglioni, C., Espie, C. A., Ellis, J., Gavriloff, D., Holzinger, B., ... & Riemann, D. (2020). Dealing with sleep problems during home confinement due to the COVID‐19 outbreak: Practical recommendations from a task force of the European CBT‐I Academy. Journal of Sleep Research, e13052.

Blunden, S., & Rigney, G. (2015). Lessons learned from sleep education in schools: a review of dos and don'ts. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 11(06), 671-680. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.4782

Brown, F. C., & Buboltz, W. C., Jr. (2002). Applying sleep research to university students: Recommendations for developing a student sleep education program. Journal of College Student Development, 43(3), 411–416

Gilbert, S. P., & Weaver, C. C. (2010). Sleep quality and academic performance in university students: A wake-up call for college psychologists. Journal of college student psychotherapy, 24(4), 295-306.

Hershner, S., & O'Brien, L. M. (2018). The impact of a randomized sleep education intervention for college students. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 14(03), 337-347 doi:/10.5664/jcsm.6974

Johns, M. W. (1991). A new method for measuring daytime sleepiness: the Epworth sleepiness scale. Sleep, 14(6), 540-545.

Lowry, M., Dean, K., & Manders, K. (2010). The link between sleep quantity and academic performance for the college student. Sentience, 3(2), 16-9.

National Sleep Foundation (n.d.) National Sleep Foundation Sleep Diary.

Oswalt, S. B., & Wyatt, T. J. (2015). Who Needs More Sleep? Comparing Undergraduate and Graduate Students' Sleep Habits in a National US Sample. International Journal of Higher Education, 4(1), 77-85.

Sher L. (2020). COVID-19, anxiety, sleep disturbances and suicide. Sleep medicine, 70, 124. 

Tanaka, H., & Tamura, N. (2016). Sleep education with self-help treatment and sleep health promotion for mental and physical wellness in Japan. Sleep and biological rhythms, 14(1), 89-99 doi: 0.1007/s41105-015-0018-6

TED talks about sleep:

Dr. Manpreet Rai is an assistant professor in Psychology at D’Youville College Buffalo, NY. Her research interests are in cognitive psychology, namely working memory and language processing. Additionally, she is interested in sleep. Other research interests are in Teaching and Learning within the scholarship of teaching and learning. She loves working with and teaching for overall student success.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software