Beyond The Hill

University of Missouri course teaches students about sleep disorders

Devyn Passaretti | Head Illustrator

There is a mantra among college students: “Sleep is for the weak.” With the increasingly competitive nature of college, students often struggle striking a balance, and sleep is usually what gets put on the back burner.

The University of Missouri makes it a point to teach its students about how fundamental sleep is to their success by offering a course on sleep and sleep disorders. The course is online, so the students can learn the subject matter from the comfort of their own beds.

The course is currently taught by Dennis Miller, an associate professor in the university’s psychological sciences department, and was originally created 15 years ago as one of Mizzou’s first online courses, Miller said in an email.

“The goal of Sleep and Sleep Disorders is for students to learn about the basics of sleep behavior — both the science of sleep and its application to students’ daily lives,” Miller said. “We spend a quarter to a third of our lives asleep and through Sleep and Sleep disorders, hopefully, students will learn more about what happens during this recurring part of their daily life.”

Miller said since its development, the course has been very popular, garnering more than 200 students per semester. He said he believed this was because “sleep behavior is inherently interesting.”

As new discoveries and technological advancements are made, Mizzou plans to update the course, Miller said. For example, he mentioned improved brain imaging techniques that help researchers better understand the neural pathways important for initiating, maintaining and ending sleep.

Leslie Gellis, an assistant clinical professor of practice psychology at Syracuse University, has some sections about sleep and sleep disorders in a couple of courses that he teaches. He noted that students have worse sleep behaviors than other demographics.

“Students’ sleep schedules vary significantly, they are more likely to engage in substances associated with poor sleep, spend more time in their bedroom not sleeping, and are more likely to have environmental circumstances incompatible with sleep onset,” Gellis said in an email.

Miller mentioned a few specific challenges that college students face in getting a good night’s rest.

First, he recommended college students avoid using substances like alcohol or marijuana to help them sleep. Miller said these substances might make them feel drowsy and help them fall asleep initially, but the sleep will likely be low-quality and these substances can cause more long-term sleep problems.

Also, he said students often have a hard time sleeping because they use electronic devices near the time they want to get to sleep or even in the middle of the night. He said this is a bad idea because “smartphones and tablets put off a tremendous amount of light that can ‘reset’ the biological clock.

Lastly, and the most detrimental to college students’ ability to consistently get a decent amount of high-quality sleep, are erratic schedules, Miller said.

“I encourage my students to set a routine — go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends,” Miller said. “Don’t pull ‘all-nighters’ and then try to recover by sleeping in on the weekend. In the long run that approach doesn’t help.”

Gellis added, more broadly, that not getting enough sleep can have many negative consequences. These range from more serious issues, such as immunosuppression, the risk of depression and the risk of impulsive behavior, to more common issues like fatigue, difficulty concentrating and irritability.

“I’m guessing many students don’t prioritize good sleep. Should they? That’s a personal decision. To maximize health and functioning I would say, yes, they should,” Gellis said.


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