Lecture Ha--zzzzzz...
March 3, 2009 6:07 PM   Subscribe

How is it that you can be fully awake before a lecture, be unable to keep your eyes open during the lecture, and again be fully awake afterwards?

This is on a full night's sleep. I am baffled.
posted by LSK to Education (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The lecture is boring?
posted by Oktober at 6:09 PM on March 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

OMG I have this problem all the time. It tends to be only in classes I have no interest in. Think about the situation without the lecture being there. Would you get sleepy sitting still for over an hour without focusing on or doing anything? I sure would.

Take more interesting classes. Take more involved notes. I found handwriting notes made it easier to pay attention.
posted by Arbac at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2009

The air temperature, relative silence, dim lighting, (somewhat) comfortable chairs, slim chance of getting caught, and lack of engaging material make a university lecture the perfect place to catch up on your sleep.
posted by wsp at 6:16 PM on March 3, 2009

I have observed (in myself and others) the exact same phenomenon, and I've wondered the same thing. You don't seem to be asking for a cure, but I'll offer one anyways: I've found that sipping a cold drink during the lecture (any cold drink - caffeination is irrelevant) *completely* removes the drowsiness. Don't know why, but it works perfectly for me.

PS: I suspect that it may be related to a more long term sleep deficit, which would explain why it happens even on a full night's sleep, but I don't have any medical evidence for that.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:16 PM on March 3, 2009

I have this problem (maybe worse)! In my case a boring lecture is not at ALL related, though nobody believes me that I really can't seem to overcome it.

I love studying, learning, lectures, etc... but for the life of me I seriously get so sleepy that I cannot overcome it sometimes in lectures. This could be on a full nights sleep, healthy food, exercise, even getting up and moving around or stepping out for a second. This happens to me in topics and lectures that I find REALLY interesting, and doing things to try to go against the sleep urge just make it mentally worse (like sometimes I have tried sitting in the front row to add the pressure of keeping a good image for the prof or avoiding being rude).
At times this happens to me during movies, really good interesting ones too, right when the plot gets good.

All my thinking about this has only come up with
1. Something about that windy background noise in lecture halls. It sounds soothing like when you put your ear up to a seashell
2. Your body relaxing naturally after the rush of getting to class and suddenly having to stand still

Some things that may help or delay:
Food. keep yourself occupied munching on something.
Multitask. Keep yourself busier or keep that rushed feeling going so you dont relax (sudoku, bring your laptop, work on other class materials at the same time, maybe just take excessive notes)
Try getting up and taking a break if you're being overtaken by the feeling.
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:20 PM on March 3, 2009

this is why I never finished college. in my experience, it definitely depended on the class atmosphere sonewhat (lighting, room acoustics, painfully boring lecturer) but not on the subject matter. over time, I was tested for narcolepsy and thyroid issues to no avail. I could drink several cups of coffee before a very interesting class and try to hold a full cup of something during the lecture, still no help. several years later I realized that I have a problem with ADHD. with the help of exercise, eating better, and adderall, I think that I may be able to actually have a fulfilling university experience now.
posted by modernpoverty at 6:25 PM on March 3, 2009

I generally assume it's because before the lecture you're alert, walking around and talking, paying attention to lots of things around you, and then during the lecture you have to sit still, stay quiet, and focus entirely on one thing (the lecture). I find it a lot easier to feel awake if my mind and senses are active, whereas if if the whole focus is one quiet, potentially boring thing, it's harder to feel awake. I find this to be true whether I've had a full night's sleep or not.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:26 PM on March 3, 2009

The better prepared you are, the more engaging the material will be.

If you are already doing all the work and doing it thoroughly, then you might just need a little caffeine to keep you going through the lecture. Even a bottle of water or a piece of gum can help you stay alert (though gum is a little rude).
posted by paperzach at 6:37 PM on March 3, 2009

This happens to students in my lectures all the time, which is strange, because my lectures are extraordinarily fascinating.

But seriously -- it's for this precise reason that professors are usually advised to "break up" lectures every 15 minutes with some kind of activity -- short discussion in pairs or groups, a class poll, a "clicker" for people who teach classes with clickers. I'm not going to say no one ever sleeps in my classes, but I do think it helps. It's kind of hard to suggest to a professor "maybe if you did X I would be able to stay awake in your class" but in my opinion you'd be doing a service to your fellow students if you wrote to the department chair, or undergraduate coordinator, and said something like "I hear great things about the teaching techniques described in the work of Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent -- maybe some of your faculty would be interested in looking these over."
posted by escabeche at 6:46 PM on March 3, 2009

This is my theory, though not in any way scientific. FWIW:

I find that when I am listening intently, and seated comfortably (sometimes not even comfortably) my breathing slows way down = sleepiness.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 6:50 PM on March 3, 2009

Sitting in the middle or back of the class, it was way easier for me to fall asleep. Sitting towards the front made this a lot harder - easier to see/hear the prof and lecture, less in my field of vision and less ambient noise to distract me, also the fear of getting caught drowsing kept me more awake.
posted by lizbunny at 6:59 PM on March 3, 2009

I always sat in the front row for this reason.

Also, sitting behind a desk in a classroom full of desks instantly predisposes me to hate the material. I think it's something Pavlovian from grade school.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:11 PM on March 3, 2009

If you're moving, your body stays alert. If you're static, as if going to sleep, you'll... go to sleep.

Demonstration: When you're in a lecture and can't keep your eyes open, just uncross your legs, stretch, and cross them the other way. Even just these two seconds of body motion will bring you back instantly and you'll able to focus and won't feel sleepy - for a very short period. Then, as you're sitting still again, you'll start to drift off again (possibly only seconds after your moments of clarity if you are very tired).

Before and after the lecture, you're in near-constant motion (walking from class to class, etc). Relax and be very still for 30 minutes (as you do in the lecture), and your body starts slowing down and gets on the path towards sleep.

If instead you listen to the lecture while standing up, or walking around, you will not get sleepy, because you're moving.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:17 PM on March 3, 2009

It's probably boring, you're trapped with nothing to do but listen (so lame!), and it may very well be that the temperature and lighting and so forth is not ideal. This is a good time to roleplay. Pretend you are in a combat air group (CAG) assembly on board a Battlestar: that makes anything good. Chewing gum might also help.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:18 PM on March 3, 2009

I don't know, but I never fixed it. I could fall asleep in class while constantly sipping from a drink, eating, and taking notes - and this was a 20 person interactive class where I could be called on to answer a question. Sitting in the front row just made me feel guiltier when I jerked awake.
posted by jacalata at 7:18 PM on March 3, 2009

This used to happen to me all the time. My eyes would try so hard to shut that I was visibly struggling against them. I would jam my pen top into my upper eyelids to stop myself from drowsing, although I don't recommend this. Only elaborate drawings really helped.

In retrospect, I think it had to do with long-term sleep debt, exacerbated by cues for sleepiness in lecture halls.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:23 PM on March 3, 2009

As a professor and as a frequent attender of lectures at conferences and professional meetings, my advice is to take notes--the kind of notes that would allow you to give a 5-10 minute oral synopsis of the lecture. By summarizing the structure and the main points you keep your mind active. If the lecturer provides an outline, don't copy it; summarize it and then note examples or details.

If that doesn't work, try carrying on a mental dialogue with the lecturer. Can you think of counterexamples? Do you disagree, and if so, why? What further questions does the lecture raise? You can ask some of those questions out loud, but just thinking of them is a way to keep yourself engaged.

I must confess to feeling drowsy in a number of lectures on important topics by great speakers, but whenever I whip out my Moleskine and follow along with pen in hand, I find I can concentrate, and I get a lot more out of the lecture.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:24 PM on March 3, 2009

F' it. It happens to everyone in uni. Embrace it, when you start working this wont be tolerated.
posted by Black_Umbrella at 7:37 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have this problem often when attending meetings at work. I can be absolutely alert at the start of the meeting but, five minutes in, I am fighting to stay awake.

The only solution I have found is to engage with the subject matter - take a real interest in what is being said, even if you don't really have an interest. It can be difficult, but is the only thing that works for me.
posted by dg at 8:18 PM on March 3, 2009

answer with no basis in experience: Get a stress ball or hand exerciser to squeeze in class. Should be something that wouldn't distract you or people around you but would let you fully activate the muscles in your hand and forearm, which seems like it would have a stimulative effect.
posted by itesser at 8:30 PM on March 3, 2009

It may well have a lot to do with your preferred style of learning. To some people, lectures are quite engaging and they really get into the material via that teaching style. But (most?) others prefer more interactive teaching styles, or just learning via textbook reading, that sort of thing.

Sometimes you can get a survey style test to try and gauge your learning style, or maybe you already have an idea of how you learn best. I'm among the group that learns quite well while taking notes, so I would take ridiculously detailed notes during lecture. Writing myself little tips, reminders, and comments about what I thought about the lecture material and connections I was making. This was easier to do if the prof provided lecture slides/notes so I could pay more attention to making my own commentary. I never really reviewed these notes other than as part of exam prep/cramming, but they helped immensely in my initial learning. And they kept me awake for the lecture because I felt actively engaged.

Find a way to engage yourself: take notes, draw diagrams, bring the textbook and find relating sections and follow diagrams there. My examples are based on my background on science, but I would think you could apply them (pictures instead of diagrams, novels instead of textbooks) to most any discipline. Basically, stop being a passive learner and become active in the process, in whatever way you can. You'll be more awake and probably learn more to boot.
posted by dnesan at 8:40 PM on March 3, 2009

Boredom equals anger. You probably subconsciously angry about being stuck and having to listen to someone, so the ego's reaction is to turn away your attention.

This is in the realm of the fine distinction between ADHD/Anxiety/Oppositionality. The state of inattention might be similar, but the reasons causing it might be different.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 9:49 PM on March 3, 2009

Do we really have to invoke ADHD to explain this? The fact is: professors aren't trained to teach, and it shows. Lectures put you to sleep most likely because they're boring.
posted by smorange at 10:39 PM on March 3, 2009

This happened to me in only one class. I was always an excellent student and prepared and alert in even the most boring lectures. I always took early classes and got sleep, so it wasn't that.

So in my experience (having always had the habit of a lot of the things others have suggested above --I'd drink cold Cokes, sit in the front row, was fully engaged in the material --this was a course in my major and one I looked forward to), I must conclude it was just that professor.

Perhaps you need to find better professors who suit the way you learn best.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:40 PM on March 3, 2009

I'm curious: is it in a lecture hall / set of chairs you've spent a lot of time in?

Because I noticed in the halls that were used constantly, by senior year I could be out like a light within 5 minutes of sitting down. Especially in classes where I wasn't terribly interested. Luckily there weren't all that many of those.

I just was so used to getting comfortable in those chairs that it was fantastically easy to recline and then eyes shut and then... holy shit is the lecture over?

I'm actually in the middle of some awesome insomnia and just thinking about those chairs - theater style chairs that were not comfortable at all - is kind of relaxing me.
posted by flaterik at 3:49 AM on March 4, 2009

One word: tenure.

The longer my profs had been teaching a given course (with the exception of the spittle-flecked [yet not contagious] passion of John Mahoney's Sophomore poetry class), the more sleepy I became in their lectures. Three universities, courses from nine students to well over a hundred, it always happened.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:32 AM on March 4, 2009

Doodling will help you pay more attention, big time. Also, taking notes, doing a crossword/Sudoku, knitting...just anything that keeps your hands busy but doesn't require major concentration.

Speaking as one of those ADHD people, I pay infinitely more attention if I have more than one thing to focus on. One voice droning for an hour just kills me if I'm not getting refreshed by some other activity.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:11 PM on March 4, 2009

I know exactly what you mean and I've always isolated the problem to my sleep/eating habits. Sleep habits -- well, you know, sleep more. As for eating -- I always fall sleepy mid-day if I don't eat breakfast in the morning. I'm not quite sure why, but it's so. Try it out.
posted by suedehead at 7:56 PM on March 4, 2009

For me, there's a correlation with a certain sort of droning cadence of speaking that some instructors have.

Embarrassingly, there does not seem to be a correlation with class size.
posted by yohko at 8:29 AM on March 5, 2009

Does the time of day matter? I finally figured out not to take any classes between 2 and 3:30 if I could help it. Even if I managed to stay awake I couldn't concentrate.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:26 AM on March 5, 2009

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