Dealing with class-induced narcolepsy

What your students want you to do about it

Sometimes your students just can’t stay awake.  This isn’t that shocking when we consider a 2010 study finding that 70% of college students aren’t getting enough sleep every night.  Digging further, a whopping 35% of students report staying up until 3 AM at least once every week.  It’s a wonder they can get themselves out the door at all.

obama commencement speech, student sleepingSo while you may be one of the most interesting and engaging speakers in the nation, and while your audience may be truly interested and motivated to hear what you have to share, it might not be enough to keep their eyes open.  (See Exhibit A at left, a 2010 high school commencement speech from President Obama.)   Personally, I had a horrible time staying awake in college classes, even when I really cared about the information and tried every mental trick I could think of to keep from drowsing off.

As in instructor, dealing with the occasional or chronic sleepers in class  presents a few options.  Do you ignore the sleepers?  After all, college students are big boys and girls who should be able to make their own decisions and face the consequences of the low grades that they are likely to earn.  Do you blast them awake with an air horn?  Your class is important, and it is insulting and disrespectful for them to not put more effort into it.  Plus, it is in their best interests to stay awake, so that is helpful, right?

We need to remember that managing the social aspect of classrooms is as important as managing the content.  What works best for any classroom intervention is the option that solves the problem while making everyone feel the best about the class experience and about you, their caring, personable teacher.

A 2006 study entitled, “Acceptability of treatment for a student sleeping in the college classroom,” had students rate whether they preferred a professor to:   A) ignore sleepers, B) wake them with a noise, C) have a student wake them, D) ask the sleeper to leave class, or E) have a private talk with the student after class.

sleeping studentNot surprisingly, kicking a student out of class was not seen as very acceptable, rating lowest on the list.  The researchers presumed that this is too severe a measure.  What was surprising was that ignoring the sleeper rated second lowest in acceptability.  Students don’t want someone sleeping in their class.  It is sometimes distracting (See Exhibit B at right).  It annoys the hard-working students who take the class seriously.  It also gives students the message that you are comfortable with low levels of achievement, to which many will promptly sink.  (See Exhibit C below)

sleeping student

The option of waking students up with a loud noise was ranked in the middle.  This makes sense as a reasonable intervention that is preferable to the extremes previously listed, but if you feel a student needs to be awoken, the study found that asking a nearby student  to do it for you  is much better received by the class.  You aren’t being the bad guy, you can continue with less interruption, and this gives a feeling of positive peer pressure as students help each other succeed.

And finally, the highest-rated way to deal with sleeping students is to talk with them after class.  You care about your students, and a private conversation lets them know this.  It also helps you understand what they need in order to be successful in class.  Can you work out a plan to help them stay awake better?  College would have been a lot better for me if I had worked something out with my instructors, like being allowed to stand up in the back of the room when drowsing got in the way of my learning.  As with many potential classroom problems, a simple instance of communication can go a long way.

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