'Like so many original ideas, this one failed miserably'

MIT prof finds that adding an hour of sleep can bump students up a letter grade

When Prof. Jeffrey Grossman used his pupils as guinea pigs for a physical activity study, he was disappointed to find data didn’t support his theory — but does prove another one

Prof. Jeffrey Grossman teaching Introduction to Solid State Chemistry at MIT. (Lillie Paquette/ MIT)
Prof. Jeffrey Grossman teaching Introduction to Solid State Chemistry at MIT. (Lillie Paquette/ MIT)

NEW YORK — Jeffrey Grossman was sure beyond a doubt that intensive exercise could boost students’ cognitive function and creativity. He was dead wrong.

“Personally when I work out I feel better, sleep better, and think better during the day,” said the professor of materials science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Grossman, who was raised Jewish but not practicing, spent many hours writing code for his Atari 800 home computer and experimenting with his chemistry set.

“You could write programs, which you then had to save to a cassette tape and it took 5 minutes to save and load, but those were the days. So I wrote code and mostly tried to make cool games since I was only 11 or 12,” he said.

Grossman channeled his love of programming and engineering into a B.A. in Physics from Johns Hopkins University and his M.S. in Physics and Ph.D in Theoretical Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A yawning dog in bed with feet and an alarm clock. (Damedeeso, iStock by Getty Images)

Now teaching at MIT, he recently collaborated with the school’s athletic department to design an exercise class based on popular motivational speaker and fitness trainer Shaun T’s “Insanity” workouts.

To test his theory, the students in his Introduction to Solid State Chemistry were asked to wear a Fitbit activity tracker for an entire semester. Of the 100 students enrolled in the class, 88 wore the Fitbit and 22 took the specially-designed exercise class.

But no matter how many times Grossman and his team read the resulting data, they found no association between exercise and academic performance.

“Like so many original ideas, this one failed miserably,” said Grossman.

But all was not lost. When Grossman and his colleagues began looking at the data again, they found that students who are consistent in their sleep habits, turn in before 2 a.m., and average around seven hours of sleep, are more academically productive.

Illustrative: Prof. Jeffrey Grossman, left, with Bill Gates as the latter visits The Engine, an MIT-backed investment venture. (Courtesy Grossman)

Essentially there was a straight-line relationship between the average amount of sleep a student got and the marks they received on the 11 quizzes, three midterms, and final exam, with the grades ranging from A’s to C’s, according to the study which was recently published in the “Science of Learning.” To protect students’ privacy their identities were kept confidential and data was collected without names being recorded.

In fact, students who consistently added one extra hour of sleep a night jumped a full letter grade, from a B to an A, said Dr. Kana Okano, first author on the paper and Grossman’s research assistant.

Getting more sleep might seem counter-intuitive to some university students, Okano said.

“The first thing that goes away for most of these students when they get to college is sleep. They feel they have to sacrifice sleep to study. However, sleep is so important for memory consolidation and you’re not going to get that without consistent sleep,” she said.

Consistency is key.

Students don’t do better by getting more sleep the night before a quiz or exam. They don’t do better if they try to sleep in an extra few hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning. They must get consistent good sleep during the entire learning process, she said.

Additionally, the researchers discovered that 2 a.m. appears to be a magic hour of sorts. Students who went to bed after that time, even if they got 7 hours of sleep, had lower class scores, Grossman said.

It’s not certain why 2 a.m. is key, Grossman said. It might relate to the way the brain consolidates memories. It could also be that as the hour to awake approaches one is subconsciously more distracted. Nevertheless, Grossman said he’s eager to share the results with his students.

“MIT students love data. We don’t just have to say good sleep can help you get good grades. We can show them there is quantitative data that you could do way better in class if you get enough good sleep. We can’t claim causation, but we can say there is a correlation,” he said.

As to whether Grossman acts on his own sleep advice?

“That’s not a fair question. I’m a terrible role model here. I did notice that I think better and am trying harder to have a set bed time and consistency,” he said.

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