How Not to Fall Asleep in Class

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Reader’s Question

I am a university student. I have problems concentrating in class, especially the morning ones. I tend to fall asleep the moment the professor starts speaking. I’ve tried different ways to stop dozing off, but nothing works. What can I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

Having been a college professor for nearly 20 years, your experience is all too common I’m afraid. One important factor may be sleep deprivation. Teens and early twenty-somethings typically need more sleep, and their sleep cycles tend to have a later onset, compared to older adults. This biological fact makes early classes in college or high school a cruel and irrational convention.

To compound the sleep deprivation issue, teens and young adults frequently stay up later than they should. That may be the result of putting off homework and studying until the impending deadline exerts its pressure. Also, however, staring into electronic screens physically suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleepiness. So, smart phones, tablets, laptops, and television sets all contribute to a later bedtime, and therefore being more sleep deprived when the alarm goes off in the morning.

Then there is the issue of alcohol and caffeine, both of which impair restful sleep. Alcohol may induce drowsiness, and some people even rely on it to fall asleep, but it disrupts the quality of sleep, leaving the user deprived of the portion of sleep needed for mental functioning. Caffeine, being a stimulant, suppresses drowsiness, and often lasts longer than many people realize. The average length of time it takes for the human body to metabolize caffeine so that it is only at about one-half its original dose is about 5-6 hours. However, the actual time varies across people naturally, and is greatly lengthened by contraceptive pills and particular medications.

Last, even when fully rested, concentrating on something that doesn’t interest us can be a daunting task for anyone. Unfortunately, many teachers deliver lectures that seem designed to put audiences to sleep. Another unfortunate fact is that the burden falls to students to stay awake and remain attentive.

You’ve probably already deduced that my first suggestion is to pay attention to your sleep quantity and quality by avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and electronic screens as a reasonable bedtime approaches. When in class, be sure to sit right up front, sit up straight, and look at the teacher as much as possible. These simple choices go a long way toward inducing attention. Research has revealed another small behavior as an attention aid — chewing gum. Also, some research has revealed that mindless doodling during particularly boring stretches helps the doodler remain attentive to what is being said by the teacher. The key is not to draw elaborate works of art, or to get caught up in thinking about the doodles, but simply to keep your hand busy with the doodling.

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More pervasive and lasting concentration has been shown to result from practicing mindfulness. If practicing meditation doesn’t appeal to you, you could try this: throughout each day, practice drawing your attention to what you are doing and what is happening around you without reflecting on it, or judging it, or letting your mind wander to other things. Like any skill, concentration gets easier with practice and transfers to other settings, such as class and homework.

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