By Col. John Graham, Associate Dean for Academic ResearchMarch 9, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y., March 9, 2011 -- In the typical university psychology course, undergraduates are in the receive mode. In classrooms built to hold 200 students, an instructor lectures and the students take notes. Periodic exams help determine how much information a student retains.
West Point psychology classes are dramatically different. Eighteen students study information in the text nightly and the next day they apply what they learned to hypothetical leadership problems generated by their combat-experienced instructors. While this method of learning sounds intense and daunting, it is not new. It's know as the Thayer Method, which was brought to the academy in 1802 by Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer.
What is new are the projects and research.
"Every freshman cadet will participate in and complete a research project before moving on to their sophomore year," General Psychology Course Director Col. Diane Ryan said. "We consider research projects essential to the development of a creative problem-solver who can lead on today's battlefield."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Training and Doctrine Commander, have told West Point leadership that the Army needs leaders who are adaptive, can understand new environments and can generate new approaches. Research is all about questioning the validity of information and testing new ideas.
For freshmen, the projects do require some tailoring.
"We developed the Self-Referent Sleep Study because the cadets have access to the data, already have some preconceived notions and the results and learning are critical to leading a platoon during a highly stressful deployment," psychology instructor Maj. Dan Hall said. "The cadets track both the amount of sleep they get over a 10-day period and how that sleep schedule potentially impacts their performance (e.g., learning and retention of academic material).
"They use the knowledge they've gained on the effects of sleep to design an 'ideal' rest schedule, which they then implement into their daily routine for the remainder of the semester. They write a detailed report on how increased sleep helped enhance their overall academic, physical and military performances," Hall continued.
The cadets are given access to sleep data analysis software called the Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool. Users simply input the amount of sleep received on a daily basis and the software provides them with predicted cognitive capability percentages that are correlated with blood alcohol content equivalencies.
"Prior to beginning this project, I knew that I didn't get enough sleep. It wasn't until after analyzing the resulting FAST data that I realized the full ramifications of my lack of sleep," Plebe Jacob Cook said.
"This was a very cool project," Cook said. "During the work week I typically slept around four hours a night. I knew that I was more tired and often had trouble focusing. One reason for my lack of sleep is time management. Another reason for my lack of restful sleep is that the conditions in which I was sleeping are still unfamiliar."
"I am on top of a bunk bed for the first time, and sometimes wonder if I might fall off in my sleep. I also think a lot about the next day's issues when I get in bed so when I did finally get to sleep, I did not sleep well," Cook explained.
"My solution was to increase my caffeine intake to counteract my fatigue. On the surface, I felt more alert after drinking caffeinated beverages," Cook continued. "This dependence on a substance, though, is not something I'd like to continue on a regular basis. The most shocking thing I learned was that I was operating at around 75 percent for most of my work week and on two notable occasions dropped below 60 percent effectiveness."
"The first was due to an extreme case of me only getting one point five hours of sleep because of stress and a combination of other factors, and the second was the result of three to four days of restless sleep combined with not enough sleep. On the weekends, I tried to make up for lost sleep, but it seems as if this strategy is less effective than I had anticipated,"
"The projects compare themselves to prior research on cadets conducted by the Naval Post Graduate School," Assistant Dean for Academic Assessment Tim Judd said. "That research found that many cadets were significantly sleep deprived. Interestingly, they also found that the most successful cadets were 'early birds.' Early birds go to sleep before 10 p.m. but wake up much earlier than the rest of the Corps to study and do homework. The least successful cadets tended to be night owls. Night owls wait until late in the evening to do their work."
Lt. Col. Carl Ohlson, director of the Center of Enhanced Performance, likes the content of this self-study.
"We work with cadets seeking to improve themselves and develop their own potential," Ohlson said. "When the cadets have data about their sleep habits, they can better form a plan to manage themselves and their work."
"Ultimately, these cadets are studying a complex environment and themselves, generating hypothesis and testing outcomes," Ryan said. "These are the skills that will develop into the adaptive leaders of the future."