kitchen table math, the sequel: sleep

Sunday, July 24, 2011


What have I learned taking timed SAT math tests?

Apart from how to answer tricky SAT math questions fast?

I have learned once and for all that sleep loss is catastrophic.

I had always been vaguely aware that I "don't function well" on too-little sleep, but it wasn't until I started taking -- and more importantly scoring -- SAT math sections that I realized exactly how not well.

From Permission to Sleep In by Christopher Shea | July 7, 2011, 12:02 PM ET:
Researchers [at Stanford University] measured shooting percentages, sprint and reaction times, and subjective mood for 11 members of the men’s basketball team, for two-to-four weeks during the 2005 and 2008 seasons, as the players followed their ordinary sleep schedules. (Average sleep, according to a motion-detection bracelet: 6.7 hours.)

Then for five to seven weeks the players boosted their sleep time to 10 hours. They were encouraged to take daytime naps when they couldn’t meet that goal.

With the additional pillow time, players dropped their average time on a routine sprinting drill (from the baseline to half court and back, then to the opposite baseline and back) to 15.5 seconds, from 16.2 seconds. Performance on free throws improved to 88%, from 79%. Three-point shots made jumped to 77% from 68%.

Basic reactions, gauged by having players push a button after spotting a stimulus on a screen, improved by 12%, and players were happier.
Source: “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players,” Cheri D. Mah, Kenneth E. Mah, Eric J. Kezirian and William C. Dement, Sleep (July)
These are young, healthy varsity athletes.

When I take an SAT math section on a good night's sleep (or maybe a good week of good nights' sleep), I miss 0 to 1 questions. Two questions at most.

The other day I took a PSAT math section in a hot room after several nights of going to bed late and getting up early, and I missed 5 questions out of 18, all of them problems I normally get right.

A five-out-of-fifteen miss rate at this stage of the game is, for me, a collapse. Projecting the same percent correct across the 3 math sections of an SAT I, that's a drop from a score in the 700 to 800 range to a score at the bottom of the 600s.

One hundred points. At least.

I'm asking myself what this translates to in terms of lost writing productivity over the years.


Debbie Stier said...

I have a similar pattern -- but mine has to do with time of day. If I take the test between 5-11 am -- I do much better than if I take it after noon. I do worse and worse as the day goes on. I should never ever touch an SAT problem after 8 pm. It always ends in tears.

Stacey HL said...

Me too. I have a toddler who rarely sleeps through the night and I'm on call every night, since my husband has the job that supports the family. I try and run my SAT Coaching business and my family on whatever energy I have left over. It takes me *forever* to get stuff done. When I have one good night of sleep and a couple of uninterrupted hours in the morning, I can bang out things that normally take me several weeks to accomplish. It feels like I'm never going to be able to function like a normal person anymore.

pckeller said...

This is a giant issue for students. The majority of the students I teach in honors and AP physics walk around in a chronic state of sleep deprivation. I give them a hard time if they come to class late, but I try to have a sense of hunor about the ones who fall asleep. I know they REALLY can't help it (and not just because I'm a dull guy). The problem is that they are overbooked both academically and with extra-curriculars, all of which they perceive as essential to compete for college admission. So even if they believe me that more sleep will improve their performance, they just don't know how to make that happen.

Catherine Johnson said...

I should have mentioned that I had the exact same 100-point gap when I was 16.

The night before I took the SAT (sans test prep since there was no such thing at the time) I went out to parties & stayed up late.

When I got my scores back, I had a 620 on reading, which I knew was wrong.

(Today I wonder how I, as a 16-year old without access to test prep materials, etc, knew that score was wrong.)

So I re-took the test & my reading score went up to 720.

(I don't remember what happened to my math score - it probably rose slightly.)

100 points

When as a parent I began reading all the College Board studies showing that nobody every raises his score significantly, I harked back to the 100-point gain I achieved simply by getting a good night's sleep and paying attention while taking the test.

Catherine Johnson said...

Stacey - I feel your pain!

Catherine Johnson said...

Yesterday I was operating on 6 hours sleep (way too little for me).

C. and I took an SAT math section outdoors, where it was slightly too hot for me to function at my best, and I missed THREE questions out of 18.


All three were careless errors involving not reading the question correctly.

I got the hard problems right, except for number 18, which I read wrong.

Catherine Johnson said...

I talked to Phillip Keller about the fact that I will not infrequently miss easy questions & get the hard, tricky questions right.

Phillip thought the issue might be gappy math knowledge; he says you see the same thing in some gifted 12-year olds taking the test.

Yesterday it suddenly struck me that my problem may simply be arousal levels.

When I'm tired, the hard questions bump my arousal level up to its optimum so I get them right & the easy questions I get wrong because I'm basically asleep when I do them. (Question: Can you do SAT math in your sleep? Answer: Yes, but you'll miss 3 questions.)

In any event, I'm going to start tracking dumb mistakes with reference to sleep. I bet there's an effect with C., too, who often does the same thing: misses easy questions then gets hard questions right.