Psychology Professor Offers Extra Credit for Sleeping in Unorthodox Study
"That's the first time I've ever felt like my brain actually worked while taking a final exam."
In 2016, as finals approached at Baylor University, sleep scientist Michael Scullin, Ph.D., began to worry that his students were planning to pull all-nighters to pass his final exam — that is, unless he found a way to stop them. Armed with smartwatches and a promise of extra credit, he sought out to see if he could change their behavior. Now, after publishing his results in the journal Teaching Psychology, he’s hoping other colleges will do the same.
Scullin, who specializes in neurology and sleep medicine, called his experiment “The Eight Hour Sleep Challenge” and devised a few different incentives intended to get college students to sleep. In his first experiment, Scullin offered eight additional exam points to any student who successfully slept eight or more hours per night during exam week — which they had to prove by wearing actiwatches (watches that record sleep time) at all times. But there was one important catch: Any student who slept less than seven hours per night would lose six points on their exams (only eight took him up on that offer).
In a second experiment, there was no point deduction. Instead, there was a smaller incentive: If students could improve their sleep by just 20 minutes each night, they could win two extra points.
Across both experiments, 24 students took on the challenge, and 17 completed it. Those who were successful averaged roughly 8.5 hours per night and improved their performance on the exams by four points — not including the extra credit points — compared to those who either failed the challenge or opted out.
"“That’s the first time I’ve ever felt like my brain actually worked while taking a final exam.”
“I had one student come up to me who was struggling throughout the course. After turning in the final exam, she came up to me and said ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever felt like my brain actually worked while taking a final exam,’” Scullin tells Inverse. “That was really impactful because it shows that maybe some students are struggling, and there are barriers that are modifiable.”
We don’t know if these students failed their other exams in pursuit of Scullin’s incentives, or how much sleep those who opted out of his study got leading up to the exams. But Scullin adds that his study was really about devising ways to incentivize sleeping. The question remains: How can we incorporate those findings into college life?
At the high school level, there are already changes like this taking shape. Amidst findings that teenagers require between eight and 10 hours of sleep per night, the CDC released a report in 2014 showing that 93 percent of high schools start too early to accommodate healthy sleep schedules. In college, Scullin says that the incentives to sleep less are even greater:
“I think that students go into finals week assuming that if they don’t cut back on sleep they won’t have enough time to study and they’ll end up doing poorly on their final exams. Why would they think about it any other way? They’ve heard stories about finals week even before they got to college.”
Let’s be real, not everyone is pulling all-nighters solely to study for exams, nor do all students have the luxury of studying during the day. But creating an incentive to sleep more (regardless of why someone chooses to stay up) is an interesting idea.
Scullin’s incentives looked to at least eliminate the academic excuses for refusing sleep, and as he adds in the conclusion of his paper, find a way to incentivize studying during the day. Though he adds it might be difficult to scale up this experiment. The actiwatch, which is a crucial part of ensuring that the sleep data is accurate, is expensive. In the future, he imagines this incentive system could be replicated with a Fitbit or other sleep sensing device. With a suitable device, he believes that this system could be implemented on a wider scale.
“Really what we need to do is change the incentive,” Scullin says. “We need to change the motivation. We need to change the culture.”