A transcript of grades and GPAs often determines your future if you don't get the chance to have an in-person interview with a school, program, or company. The pressure to impress on paper can be overwhelming and often leads students to frantically worry over school and grades.

This pressure is at its worst during exam week. Students studying for their midterms, practicals, and finals find themselves locked up in the library trying to master what seems like a lifetime's worth of knowledge condensed into one semester. In a recently published study seen on PLOS ONE, Matthias Zunhammer from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Regensburg sought to examine the effects of exam week on students. Zunhammer found that the amount of stress perceived dictated sleep quality in the students, and suggested that stress is directly related to insomnia.

Students Prepare to Take on Exams

With exams right around the corner, 142 students from two public universities in Regensburg, Germany participated in Zunhammer's study. Students were asked to complete the following online assessments before, during, and after exams:

  • German PSQI: A 9-item self-report assessing sleep quality.
  • Regensburg Insomnia Scale (RIS): A 10-item scale looking for symptoms of insomnia.
  • Perceived Stress Questionnaire (PSQ): A questionnaire with 20 negative and 20 positive items used to indicate perceived stress.

During exam week, the participants were asked to complete the online assessments three days prior to the test they were most stressed out about. Students also recorded how many times they consumed alcohol, caffeine (coffee, tea, energy drinks, etc.), and nicotine (cigarettes).

Sacrificing Sleep Due to Stress

During exam week, students significantly slept less, consumed more caffeine, and drank less alcohol. Zunhammer found that students did not sleep well leading up to their exams, but resumed normal sleeping schedules afterwards. Nicotine was the only variable that showed a significant negative relationship with sleep quality. Students who smoked upwards of 20 cigarettes a week showed adverse effects on their sleep quality as seen in their PSQI scores. However, only 38 students reported any smoking at all, thus making the data pool too small. When exams were over, the students showed an increase in alcohol consumption.

“The present results indicate that exam periods are a promising model setting for the study of stress-related insomnia, its consequences, and potential remedies," notes Zunhammer. The results clearly show how drastically behaviors in students change due to exam stress and suggest a need for exam week interventions.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: October 23, 2015


University of Regensburg

Matthias Zunhammer, Peter Eichhammer, and Volker Busch. Sleep Quality during Exam Stress: The Role of Alcohol, Caffeine and Nicotine. PLOS ONE, 3 October 2014; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109490