Getting Enough Sleep

Here is a recent string of tweets on UTown:

  • “utown is packed and my friends couldn’t find a seat”;
  • “found an awesome spot to study in utown”;
  • “camping at utown”;
  • “utown lvl 1 to 3 r all full, going to ctrl lib to mug instead”;
  • ”redbull giving out energy drinks at utown”;
  • “oh, so now sec 4 kiddos are studying at utown”;
  • “security doing checks on ppl in utown. Apparently too many NTU people crashing our study rooms already”;
  • “Utown is fully packed on a Saturday! Stop studying so hard dearest NUS”; ….

This is the Reading Period, which means that exams are around the corner. Our students are all ‘mugging’ hard, hoping to ‘squeeze in’ as much content into their heads as possible. UTown has proven to be a popular study spot and outsiders are also gate-crashing the compound! We are taking steps to ensure that our facilities are accessible only to NUS students.

To me, sleep is most vital, particularly during this trying period. Everyone’s physical make-up is different and our sleep requirements vary. But, insufficient sleep will lead to drastically decreased daytime alertness, and suboptimal performance.

Perhaps that’s why zombies are sometimes associated with sleep deprivation.

Studies have shown that a person’s performance, after 2 continuous weeks of less than 6 hours of daily sleep, can be as dysfunctional as someone who has gone without sleep for the past 48 hours at a stretch. I guess many of our students are in either situation now.

And students have devised ways and means to stay awake. My son told me that a 6-pack of Red Bull can keep him up for the entire night, and it is much cheaper and more effective than 2 cups of Starbucks coffee. This explains why Red Bull is giving out free drinks at UTown. From Wikipedia, Red Bull is plenty of caffeine plus sugar, and conventional (and scientific) wisdom suggests that one should not depend on that for too long!

This is a stressful period for many. Thus, the Counseling and Psychological Centre has been conducting classes and stress-relief clinics; the Centre conducted a ‘Stress No More’ class at UTown last week.

Whatever you do, do rest and sleep well!


  1. Redbull is great at this period of time!! I felt that the competitions are getting a bit insane, a great balance would be lifting the bell curve so we won’t be too stressed out when our friends are studying hard 🙂

      1. Yes, I think what you shared that day would really help clear things up. Maybe it might somewhat diminish the adversarial proclivity of students here.

        Unmoderated bell curves have issues that many students are able to see, but what we do not routinely see is the way in which it is moderated at NUS to address its shortcomings.

  2. Nice words to hear, but sadly that’s the reality of things. With up to 50% of our grades dependent on exams even at 4000 level modules, exams are vital in scoring good grades.

    Perhaps it’s time we put less pressure on exams by reducing its weight to 40 or even 30%. A friend from SMU told me that if a class has 40% exams, no one would take it because it’s too exam heavy.

    Food for thought.

    1. I will provide some statistics in a future blog. The truth is that NUS has reduced its emphasis on final exams in recent years.

  3. Dear Prof Tan Eng Chye:

    Exams are always stressful more so in Asia. What I’ve perceived through my academic “career” in Nepal, US, and now Singapore is that if the student assessment/evaluation is more spread out throughout the duration of the course rather than having a final all-out test, students have an overall better performance, are more relaxed, and learn (or retain) more. In your earlier posts, you did mention about possible changes to grading modalities. Such changes might be able to offset the current trends of stressful preparations which will lead to students maintaining a normal biological rhythm.

    Rishav Shrestha, MBBS, MPH
    PhD Year I, NGS

    1. Just because exams are at the end of semester doesn’t meant students cannot study through out the semester. Having a final exam helps reward folks who do a balanced complete study of the material and develop a through understanding of the subject matter., rather then red bull drinking muggers. Education should not superficial, which is what unfortunately a spread out evaluation will produce. If you are requires to just learn 1 week worth of stuff for your exam you will not put in the effort to understand the things deeply.

      1. We could write a book doing critical analysis of evaluation system, but I would just like to ask you: did you ever cram for any exam in your student life (current or previous)? If yes, why? If no, why not?

        Another question: Did you develop a thorough understanding of every subject you took or had to take? If yes, I request you to share with me how you managed to do that. If no, why not?

      2. In my two years in NUS, I’ve found that the spread out evaluation benefits me more because it encourages(you could say forces) me to clear any doubts immediately. Applying knowledge in regular assigments/CAs also allowed me to concretise the concepts better. As the Chinese saying goes, “Do and you understand”. And I usually am more prepared for my final exams.

        But of course it depends on the discipline/passion of the students and how they divide their time among the modules.

        I’ve heard comments from my friends about how they didn’t study much during the semester but did a final mug-out before the final exams and got good grades.

    2. We are moving away from solely relying on final exams. But it does not mean that it will be easier. The ideal is to achieve a balance to minimize stress and maximize learning.

  4. NTU having main examination worth 80%, so much stress on it that my friend said, he could sweat caffine. Practical work and assignments took up more time yet amount to the least percentage in acedemic subjects.

  5. No matter how bad it seems here, it seems the South Koreans have it worse.

    Speaking of Red Bull, have you ever heard of a Jagerbull/Jagerbomb? The idea is to mix Jagermeister, a mix of herbal stuff extracted with alcohol, and Red Bull, a sweet and caffeinated drink, together. The former is slow and has ice added, the second involves dropping the Jagermeister in and downing the shot instantly.

    The result of the interaction between caffeine and alcohol is that you’re getting drunk even though you don’t feel drunk. It’s cute enough that certain places have banned selling more than 4 Jagerbombs a day to the same person because of how often imbibers end up crawling home.

    A perfect example of what not to drink during the exam period, and what might be nice immediately after.

    Let’s finish this stretch off and after that we can party. =P

  6. I overheard an undergrad saying he had drunk some coffee in the evening to stay awake, and then subsequently couldn’t fall asleep later in the night and popped some sleeping pills to go to sleep. That’s seriously scary!

  7. Red Bull and Starbucks Coffee are too sweet. I got diabetes due to Red Bull in National Service. Very bad. Type 2 diabetes is very bad for health. Try to encourage Chicken Essence. In addition, NUS students can be trained in Mind Mapping, Speed Reading, Mnemonic Peg Systems which can help them to study better. As for the Counselling Centre, I wished alumni or ex-Nus students can approach them for free. I needed counsellors and therapists help when I got into trouble with the law and the counsellors charge me $200 per session.

  8. Dear Prof, not that I am advertising but I think NUS students should take some courses from Mindchamps. I recently went for an interview and their courses are very well structured to help students cope better, study better and make learning more fun for children and adults. Their courses are expensive but if you are a male Singapore citizen and have served National Service, you get a 10 per cent discount! On a side note, so far, my National Service contributions have never been recognised in the working world. Females have all climbed the corporate ladder while I am still struggling. Perhaps as a Provost, you may like to implement some form of recognition such as priority CORs modules or priority UTown bookings for National Service contributions.

    1. Dear Edmund. What seems fair to one group may be deemed as unfair to another. In the Civil Service, graduates who have completed their NS are given two increments over graduates who have not served NS. This is also a suggestion to private companies, but it is understandable that it has not been uniformly adopted.

  9. I am a German exchange student and at my home university, the final exams usually count 100% of the grade. Still, pressure on students is much lower and the period for exams is a lot less stressful. I think this is due to two things: one is that there is less pressure from parents / society / … on students in Germany, but the other is that we’re not graded on a bell curve. This means that I don’t have to try to be better, but I try to do my best. This results in less competition among students and instead students helping each other.

  10. On the subject of sleep, I was fascinated by the claim that Leonardo da Vinci could survive on sleeping only 2-3 hours a day. With 5 hours extra per day, was that the secret of his genius? I don’t think mere mortals like me can pull that off, even for a day…


    A more modest tip was from Winston Churchill, a strong advocate of afternoon naps.

    “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one – well, at least one and a half.”

    ~ Winston Churchill

    Personally, I am trying out the idea of “Power Nap”, whenever I can afford to. It involves napping for exactly period of time (depend on individual), which terminates before the occurrence of deep sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS), intended to quickly revitalize the subject.

    Does anyone in Singapore take afternoon naps? Please share your experience. It sounds like a waste of time in stressful Singapore, but I think it has benefits, both mental and physical.

  11. Hi Provost, Hi readers,
    I went for exchange to Hawaii (the paradise island where time stops to relax).
    We had 2 DAYS of “reading week” before the exams start.
    However pressure was not as unbearable as it is in NUS, because final examinations are worth maybe 20-30% of your final grade, and the bell curve is not used. So there is no need to try to outdo your peers. A few days after the examinations, our exact score was made known through the student portal. There is a detailed breakdown of how this score is added to the rest of your CA components (which are of course made known earlier), and then the final score is matched against a pre-determined range (e.g. >80 is A and so on).
    Key words: transparency and competition (or rather, lack of).
    On another note, it was close to impossible to score if you didn’t go for lessons! This rewards students who are consistent, and who diligently pay attention in class. It is saddening that our current examination system may give seasoned last-minute muggers an unfair advantage even if they did not put in much effort during the semester…

    1. Thanks for sharing. The key is the effectiveness of learning. It is easy to create a no-stress assessment system, but can it deliver a good learning outcome?

  12. i kinda agree with H. some kiasu students may even try to sabotage other people by giving them wrong answers. i encountered one selfish girl who seem to be quite helpful to others but i realised that the answers she gave are wrong and she purposely mislead her friends so that she can get higher points. these kind of people have no moral conscience and if they get into the working world, they will play office politics. if the examination is graded without any bell curve, students may be less bitchy and less backstabbing because as long as they hit 75 out of 100, they will get an A. that being said, examination is just part of the thing. communication and interpersonal skills at work will always win. many hiring managers will prefer to hire someone who has better showmanship during job interviews rather than someone who cannot present well but has many As in the interviews. i am one example. i have poor body language during job interviews and many people have said that i do not speak well during job interviews.

  13. Amy Chua wrote a book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother which advocates a strict, no-nonsense upbringing of her 2 daughters. She forces her daughters to play piano, violin, solve complex Math problems and other tasks to increase their concentration. To some certain extent, I find Singapore to be too lax in their assessment and our notion of having fun in a learning environment may also lead to our students to be ‘softies’ and not used to a high pressure stressful environment when they go out to work later.

    1. Is the increased performance of the daughters, if any, worth the cost at which it is achieved? Should they desire it, that is one thing, but having to use coercion makes things fuzzy.

      Relative to most other societies in existence, our assessment is actually extremely strict. Some of the few exceptions who are stricter than us include South Korea especially, and certain areas in China. Most of our counterparts in the Western countries and from our ASEAN neighbours generally do not face the assessment stress we are subject to, from my contacts with them.

      As for it being a preparation for work, it seems to me that work places a different kind of toll on the individual than assessments do. Generally, in school processes tend to be more important, but in work, the only thing that really matters is whether what needs to be done is done or not. As long as the final objective is achieved, most managers would prefer their workers face less pressure. It keeps them happier, more productive, and less likely to jump ship when another company makes a better offer.

      Highly productive and motivated individuals are in high demand. Individuals who can produce the same product while pulling a long face are somewhat less easy to work with.

    2. I believe the methods used by Amy Chua are very dangerous, and should not be recommended at all. Instead of creating an Einstein, you may create a Frankenstein instead.

      Check out this story of William Sidis, I.Q. 250.


      Long before the “Tiger Mother” phenomenon, around 1910, a man named Boris Sidis was touting his child-rearing methods.

      To those who knew of his son, William James Sidis was quite possibly the smartest man who ever lived.

      … I’ll leave you to find out the ending.

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