Falling asleep over homework

I’ve been working a lot with teachers recently, holding up their homework assignments to the criteria for “deliberate practice.” (Since that’s the only kind of practice that actually helps us get better at things, it’s a good guide to whether homework is worth doing.)

But all that thinking about homework has also brought on that irresistible urge to sleep that I used to feel as a teenager. As Vivian, a student contributor to Fires in the Mind, said:

I’m like, “Okay, what’s more important, math or history?” My eyes are closing, but I just push myself to stay up late. Sometimes I drink coffee, so it’s unhealthy, too! . . . And it shows: I’m always tired in class, because I spent all my night doing my homework!

Vivian has a point. Across the board, researchers report the same thing as did this study done in 1998 by Amy Wolfson, M.D.: “Altogether, most of the adolescents surveyed do not get enough sleep, and their sleep loss interferes with daytime functioning.”

Specifically, there is mounting evidence that “sleep deprivation has its greatest negative effects on the control of behavior, emotion, and attention, a regulatory interface that is critical in the development of social and academic competence.”

Dr. Wolfson’s studies reveal disturbing results in adolescents who get insufficient sleep. One study concluded:

Students who described themselves as struggling or failing school (C’s, D’s/F’s) reported that on school nights they obtain about 25 minutes less sleep and go to bed an average of 40 minutes later than A and B students.

Maggie Jones’s fascinating article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine discusses the effects of too little sleep on our cognitive performance—and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about it. For example, after just a few days of getting four or six hours of sleep, one group of lab subjects reported:

Yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.

Might teachers actually be hurting their students’ performance, not helping it, with the homework they assign? What might such studies mean for how, and when, to give homework? What solutions can you propose?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best answers I receive.