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Sleeping in Class

Dear TLT,

My students are sleeping during class, and it really bothers me. For example, I recently gave one student a speaking test who had used the pre-test revision time for a snooze - during the test she had a red mark on her forehead where it had been laying on her desk! I had to laugh, but this sort of things happens regularly, and it’s driving me crazy! What can I do to keep my students awake? 

Frustrated in Fukuoka

Dear Frustrated, 

Thanks for bringing attention to a persistent problem that many teachers face not only here in Japan, but around the world. There are various ways to deal with this issue. You could give in to your emotions and take a nasty approach by publicly shaming your sleeping students, perhaps by projecting photographs of them onto a big screen or kicking their desk. However satisfying these actions would be in the moment, we don’t recommend it. While it could work if occasionally done in humor or if you have a solid rapport with your class, if sleeping is something that regularly happens, as you say, constant shaming will likely corrode the positive learning atmosphere you’ve carefully worked hard to cultivate. 

Instead of shaming your students, it is much more effective to put your time and attention into getting to know them better. How well do you really know your sleepy students? There is a long story behind every one of those heads on the desk. For example, is their behaviour happening only in your class, or is it a general pattern? What about their health? Are they sleeping because they are sick or dealing with some other health concern? How much sleep do they usually get, and what about their diet? Outside sources of stress also need to be considered: are your students feeling lots of stress from problems at home, too much part-time work, or too many club activities? In addition, for university students, you might also consider the impact of living away from home and whether they are successfully managing their lives. 

Taking the time to get to know your students can pay great dividends because it shows them that you care. When you make this effort, you’re simultaneously building what John Hattie (2012) calls teacher credibility, which, according to his extensive research, ranks highly as a positive effect on student learning. Punitive actions, on the other hand, have very little effect. Taking the time to get to know even one student can end up inspiring your whole class. Your students will come to see you as a teacher that cares not only that they learn, but more importantly understands who they are. So the next time you find a student sleeping in your class, just sit with them afterwards for a little while and talk about why they’re so tired. Hopefully, this will solve the problem.

In addition to getting to know your students, there are other ways of bringing attention to the problem of students sleeping in your class. Keep in mind there are some cultural differences with regards to this issue. In general, class sleepiness is not considered as rude in Japan as in other countries. As Hussain (in McMurray, 2015 this volume/issue) notes, “Japanese students enjoy lots of freedom in the class: they can play, read novels, gossip, sleep or can leave the classroom at any time without receiving permission from the professor. This is unimaginable in my country and these actions are usually treated with zero tolerance” (p. 39). It may help, therefore, to bring this issue up in your first class of the year as you introduce your course. Let them know that in your culture, sleeping in class is considered very rude behaviour, and it will not be tolerated, for sleeping is the same as being absent. Then, tell them what you will do if you find them sleeping. For example, you could say that falling asleep will cause you to ask them to answer a question in front of the entire group. You may also ask them to leave the classroom for a moment to take a short break so they can gather up their energy. They can run up some stairs, do some stretching, or splash water in their eyes . . . whatever works for them. 

Beyond the students, another thing you can do to combat sleeping it to bring more conscious creative attention to how you teach. What can you do to bring more movement, interest, and interactivity to your lessons? There are many ways to do this. For example, you can keep students physically active via group activities, mixing them up for speaking tasks so they have to move around, and standing to answer questions. Physical movement will keep them both awake and on their toes. Having them perform short skits or make group presentations are also tried and true techniques. When reading, how about getting students to read aloud to each other? New topics of conversation can also be practiced via pair-writing, where each student writes out their part of a common dialog. Anything you can do to incorporate collaboration will help create an active atmosphere where sleeping just isn’t an issue any longer. 

Finally, if the problem continues despite your best efforts, we advise you to treat it as a learning opportunity. Here are some ideas for how to go about this, in a step-by-step plan we call The Sleep Project

  • In groups, do a mind map on sleeping to lay the groundwork for the rest of the topic.
  • Groups create a survey on sleeping, with each one focusing on a different area, such as time, type of bedding, sleep problems, etc. Before the next class, group members must interview as many people as possible and collate the results. 
  • Using data from the survey, plus information gleaned from research, each group creates a poster presentation on their topic. Students can share what they’ve learned and provide any recommendations they’ve come up with.
  • Hold group discussions on topics such as How to avoid sleepiness in class or Advice for teachers on keeping their students awake. Have students share their ideas and then create a set of guidelines for their topic.
  • Follow-up Idea 1: Create a sleep-related product (to either promote better sleep or keep them awake during the day). Encourage wacky, off-the-wall ideas. Go on to create a commercial to advertise the product. Make a video using their smartphones or create a skit to perform for the class.
  • Follow-up Idea 2: Do the 7-day challenge: Each student commits to a one-week research activity where they follow good sleeping practices every day as discussed earlier. Discuss the effects in the next class.

We realise that while following this exact plan may not be practical in all of your classes, we hope it has generated some creative thinking on your part on how lemons can be turned into lemonade. Hopefully by bringing the topic out into the open, problematic students might self-monitor more, plus understand that sleeping will hinder their overall progress. And who knows, you might learn a thing or two yourself! 


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.

McMurray, D. (2015). Teaching assistance. The Language Teacher, 39(6).

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