Ask the Grumpies: Sleeping Students

Rumpus asks:

What are the specific steps you take with a student that falls asleep in class? Currently sleeping students are probably the second-most disjoint part of my class. It’s usually just one or two per semester, but I think my technique isn’t quite right because they keep doing it (and it’s not due to the time the class is scheduled).

#1:  Man, I feel for these students.  If I had a class before 10am, that was often me.  I didn’t want to sleep, but sometimes I’d wake up in a puddle of drool, my penciled notes having gotten more incoherent and eventually trailing diagonally down the paper to the desk.

Even so, students should not be sleeping in class whether or not they mean to be disrespectful.  Mainly I address them when they start to nod off and ask them a question.  “So the p value would be… what… Mr. Smith?”  “Huh?  What?”  [frantic whispers from the student next to Mr. Smith] “Oh, uh, the p value would be uh…”  I’m mean that way.

#2:  I ignore it, unless they’re snoring.  It’s not too distracting and they’re only hurting themselves.  I’ve done it, so I can’t carp too much.

Teaching readers, what do YOU do when a student falls asleep in your class.  Everybody, have you fallen asleep in class?  Any memorable moments?

22 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: Sleeping Students”

  1. Louise Says:

    I had one today actually, I ignore them and let them sleep, it’s their responsibility to participate and be conscious if they want to learn.

  2. First gen american Says:

    I had a professor majorly chew me out after class. He suggested I bring coffee with me. That’s the day I started drinking coffee and for effect I bought the largest to go coffee mug they made. It was like a big gulp. The professor did like me after that and even tried to get me to change to his major.

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    If multiple students were sleeping, I would take it as a sign that I need to make my class less boring and more engaging. If one student were occasionally or habitually sleeping, it wouldn’t be my problem.

  4. JaneB Says:

    Depends on the context. large classes, I ignore it. Small classes… harder.

    One of the most disconcerting teaching experiences I have had (right up there with the Squirrels Getting It On Just Outside The Classroom Incident) involved a tiny tutorial group of three students – I was just a grad student TAing at the time. We sat around a small table with one student on my right and two on my left. We were working over their responses to a problem sheet. I focused on the two to the left, who were asking questions about a particular thing, for about 2 minutes, turned back to the one on my right… and they were fast asleep face down on the table. I can’t even keep the attention of three students??? And they weren’t at all embarrassed when woken, just said ‘man that was a great party last night’ and carried on…

  5. feMOMhist Says:

    totally ignore. why waste my time or the classes doing something about (like making a loud sound near said sleeping student) We’ve all BTDT as students ourselves (don’t lie you know you nodded off in astro or AH or some other class when the prof turned off lights to show a film)

    However when one frequent in-class slumberer informed me s/he was not doing well in my class because I wasn’t a good teacher, I just laughed and said “if you were ever awake to SEE me teach I might take comment seriously. The other students aren’t bored enough to sleep, so I think I’ll rely on their reactions.”

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s the problem though– the comments on the evals that say, “Dr. #1 didn’t teach things in class” when Dr. #1 sure did teach those things. An untenured prof doesn’t have so much leeway in terms of letting students harm themselves.

      • feMOMhist Says:

        hmm well unless a sizable N of students are sleeping, then the skewing shouldn’t be too extreme. Every set of evals has that small percentage, which for me are outliers, who hate me. Also my school pretty much just looks at #s not comments. I’ve heard tell that there are actually places where too good of an eval set is seen as evidence that you are LAX and pandering.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Ours pays attention to the comments.

  6. Kate MacInnis Says:

    I just count them absent. Physical presence doesn’t count for anything. Actually, that’s not much a threat, since attendance in my classes is just for bonus points, but those particular students never seem to realize that.

    Honestly, I’ve been considering putting it in my syllabus that a student will receive an automatic F for the second offense of sleeping in class. It may not matter as much in a lecture-oriented class, but in classes that rely on a lot of student-student communication, it hurts the other students and really harms the class climate. Chronic sleepers fail anyway, without exception in my experience, so let’s just get it out of the way and bring the class size down to benefit the ones who can stay awake.

  7. Mimi Says:

    I also try to have one video or audio clip to play in class, and if someone is sleeping, I play it really loud. I also will break them into small groups to discuss something, and that usually wakes people up.

    I am confident that you could be the MOST entertaining professor in the world and some students will still sleep in class. This semester I have a student (in a 8am class) who seems really interested in the material and participates all the time… when he is awake. He has apologized to me for sleeping and explained that he is the Army and goes to drills before class from 5 to 7am. And he has a 4 month old baby. He wants to stay awake, but he just can’t. There is no way that I could be entertaining enough to keep that student awake for the entire class.

  8. bogart Says:

    I attended a talk yesterday afternoon at which the accomplished, tenured professor who organizes the overall series (though he didn’t invite this particular speaker, I have no reason to think he doesn’t respect the guy’s work and he — the organizer — is a basically good and decent guy) kept dozing off during the talk. It happens, and not just from students. Or, more succinctly, eh.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh yes. I have been known to doze during talks as well, and I don’t have the excuse of age. But I’m also not expected to learn the material whether I want to or not, and I’m not going to hurt the speaker’s teaching evals!

  9. rented life Says:

    I let them sleep, but if I show a video, it’s always funny to watch the new noise jerk them awake. I didn’t sleep in class in college–because I’d just stay in bed–but I did a lot in high school. Still not sure how I passed chemistry. A friend of mine had a sleeping student in his class, who woke up half way through class and was baffeled he was no longer in econ. Apparently the kid fell asleep in the previous class and his classmates left him there.

  10. Spanish Prof Says:

    Ignore them unless they are snoring. I only had to wake up one because of that, but he was so loud that the whole class would burst up laughing when he started snoring.

  11. chacha1 Says:

    Through undergrad I didn’t have this problem, although I hated 8 a.m. classes on principle. In grad school, I had one small seminar (the 7 students and professor around a table in a conference room kind) and occasionally would start to nod off (because, let’s face it, discussing a topic in history at 7:30 p.m. after a full day of work is not always so stimulating). Now THAT is embarrassing. Or should be. I mean, you’re all right there looking at each other, right?

    Honestly I can’t remember doing any teaching evals. Maybe those were not SOP in Georgia all those decades ago, or maybe I am just forgetful. But if I had done an eval, I certainly wouldn’t have blamed the *teacher* for me not staying awake.

  12. Donna Freedman Says:

    I’d be SO tempted to take up the accordion….

  13. Rumpus Says:

    I’m thankful for all the comments.

    I’m concerned these days about classroom efficiency…a result of reading Teach like a Champion. I want all of the students to get the best opportunity I can provide for learning the topic. If a student chooses to sleep instead of attend to the class, that’s his/her choice and I respect that as long as they aren’t distracting their classmates by sleeping in class. It’s a new viewpoint for me, because I’ve never worried about such things before (e.g., how the students see/treat me, or whether some students are impacting other students, etc). (Of course, it’s even more distracting if I call the entire class’s attention to the sleeping person.)

    I don’t think it’s an issue of the material being uninteresting…in those cases the students either don’t show up, or they pull out their cell phones, or they just socialize with each other. I think they just aren’t getting enough sleep, so they sleep in class. Yesterday I woke one up twice and he just fell asleep again each time. They do sometimes fail out, and I have just started marking them as absent if they’re asleep, so that could be my standard approach.

    I think my ideal would be catching them as they start to nod off and getting them to interact with the classroom, but they can apparently fall asleep in seconds.

    Aside: I did fall asleep in class back in high school, and maybe once or twice in graduate school, but that doesn’t mean I think it was the right thing to do.

  14. femmefrugality Says:

    I slept in class in high school. The worst that ever happened was my teacher saying, “Oh, look, *femmefrugality* is awake today!” My grades didn’t suffer in the classes I slept through. College is a different story, though. No matter how tired I am, I just can’t legitimize sleeping through a class I’m paying for.
    I agree that ignoring them is the best strategy. It’s only themselves that they’re hurting. And if they can sleep through your class and still pass, good for them. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad/unchallenging teacher. Just that they’re either a great student that learns well on their own, or that they’ve learned the material before.

  15. Kellen Says:

    I *tried* to fall asleep in the 8am econ lecture I had freshman year of college. Couldn’t do it.
    I HAVE had a class where the PROFESSOR fell asleep before. (We had several speakers in that class and the prof would sit to the side, but in front of the class, while the speakers were presenting, and he completely nodded off one day.)

    I guess I don’t have much sympathy for in-class-sleepers, but Rumpus – the students pulling out cell phones or “socializing” in class sound pretty disruptive too. I am imagining a class room of about 30 kids with 8 on their cell phones, 10 chatting, and 4-5 sleeping, so my image of what your class is actually like is probably not accurate since that’s quite a ridiculous image.

    In a lecture hall, I would expect that. In a classroom where the students know you can see all of them, I’d call it disrespectful unless they can give you a reason for it (like Mimi’s student with army drills and a 4-month-old.)

    The problem is, the teachers who get “respect” in terms of classroom behavior often get terrible evals. My favorite professor was a stickler for showing up, on time, and without any sign of a cell phone. She was a wonderful teacher, but the professor who never said “boo” to anyone and always acted so concerned if you weren’t doing well always got the best evaluations, even though she wasn’t anything special in terms of actually getting the material across.

  16. Donnie. Says:

    I had a student fall asleep in my statistics class. I found it very distracting, but I didn’t want to poison the class environment. I ignored him for a while, and finally asked a question to the class (pertaining to a significance test). Since it is an early morning class, I typically do not get much response from the class, so I jokingly say “let’s ask the sleeping student.. no, shhh, let’s not wake him up”. The class laughed at him., and I continued with my lecture with a smile. Well, when he wakes, he is upset to be the brunt of my joke. He’s angry at me at the end of the class. Never have I witnessed such disrespect. Ahhh well., time to get back to MY MARKING.. I have a stats final to finish up..

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