It's not that I cannot hold my attention - I find it a lot easier to put in sustained effort during research - literature surveys, practising derivations, and coding. I also find myself actively engaging in 1-1 (or smaller groups) discussions over long periods of time.

During lectures and seminars, it is a completely different story. I invariantly doze off within 15-20 minutes, irrespective of the content, presenter and class size. I despise it, and sincerely want to change it. Any suggestions?

EDIT : All your answers made me go through all the possible reasons for nodding off. In my case, it is most likely a case of lack of interaction (Peter Teoh's answer) since I have made through with long hours of both mental and physical work for consecutive days (hence mostly not a case of sleep deprivation). Thank you!

  • 23
    While I sympathize with the question -- a few days ago I nodded off during a (pretty) good talk by (quite) an eminent speaker -- I think that here academia is more the incidental environment rather than the essence of the question. Would the answer really be different if you were trying not to doze off in a workplace meeting, a concert or performance, in church...? This seems close to "boat programming". Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 17:55
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    I used to always sleep in one of my undergrad CS classes. It was right after lunch. I drank coffee. I moved to the very front of the classroom in an attempt not to sleep. I then became famous as the gal who was always sleeping in the 2nd row of Microarchitecture. I never shook that appellation! So I switched majors. :-)
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 18:04
  • 5
    Two words: Dark Chocolate :D Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 18:40
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this question is more about Personal Productivity, not specifically about Academia.
    – enthu
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 22:27
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    @EnthusiasticStudent I think it is about academia because it is specifically focused on lectures and seminars.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 23:59

12 Answers 12


Since you invariably falls asleep during lectures, and not when you are doing any other actively engaging/interacting work, I presumed you are not overtired, or lacking of sleep. Most likely you lack interaction. Whenever you talk to someone, you will not fall asleep. So when the lecturer are talking, it is very often I take down notes. And there are two kinds of notes - just like different ways of talking to the lecturer.

If I already understood what he said: you can often see me dropping down QUESTIONS which I want elaborate further - likely to be on my own, or with hime/someone else.

If he covered some topics / area which I am not familiar, I will try to understand at a high level (if I were to zoom in understanding every word he said - it is not fruitful), and perhaps summarized as one word or two what he said - which I will explore further after the lectures.

Through these two types of notes, often it can sometimes be overwhelming as I try to concentrate listening + writing at the same time - strike a balance for yourself.

Another way? In the past I used to use my handphone, mp3 recorder etc to record the lecturer teaching, but that required you to seat in front.

SITTING IN FRONT does help too - as I find myself more likely to interact (with lecturers) through asking questions.

My past lecturer also encourage questioning - intelligently posed, which will score points. And so all of us are encouraged to engage in actively making remarks, asking questions to further our understanding. Once in a while some chocolate bars are offered for the highest numbers of questions asked, or best questions posed (some times very subjective, so difficult to judge).


I used to have lectures at 2.00pm too, and that is after lunch hours. As I invariably will fall asleep after a heavy meal, I did TWO things:

  1. I jogged at 12 noon under the sun in the stadium, or you can go swimming. All these is to build up the short period of alertness after exercising.
  2. Since you don't eat before exercising, that's good. And after exercising, have a small meal - 80% full usually will mean sleepiness after a short while, but 30% to 50% full usually I can stay awake for at least 4 or 5 hours. Many times I can skip lunch altogether, just to make sure I stay awake throughout the entire lectures.

Another new way for the electronic geek :

Recently, since I had a new Nexus 7 7" tablet with me, I found it extremely useful. I was listening to a lot of different talks (in a Conference), and many times the technically advanced speaker will mumble something which I don't understand or know of. Instead of writing down some keywords to be explored later, I entered into Google the keywords, out came the many search results as answer INSTANTLY. It helped me to understand IMMEDIATELY the outline ideas, but more important - I just enter "star" button and this search results is remembered as a favorited page. The list of the favorited pages exported out as HTML can be easily imported anywhere to be explored further just by clicking.

  • 4
    +1 for sitting at the front - risky but often effective. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 8:48
  • thanks, but why risky? i thought it keeps you more alert, as you are going to embarrase yourself if you should knock off :-) or get distracted by some other stuff.
    – Peter Teoh
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 14:06
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    exactly - if you still fall asleep - right at the front of the lecture - you will suffer greater embarrassment! :-) Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 14:21
  • oh i see, i thought you wanted to say "being pointed at to answer some question" - which you should welcome to happen :-).
    – Peter Teoh
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 14:24
  • Make sure the lecturer is OK with taping her/him. Some rely don't like it - for whatever reason - and in some countries it might be considered copyrighted material. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 9:42

The first thing you need to do in order to address this issue is to understand why you are falling asleep. Since you say that you do not have difficulty focusing elsewhere, it seems likely that there is something specific about the lecture environment that is triggering your sleep. The approach to fixing it depends on the cause.

Two likely possibilities:

  • If you are extremely fatigued in general, then any significant chunk of time where you are entirely passive, like in a lecture, is likely to result in you falling asleep. I had this experience as an undergraduate. The only real cure is to start sleeping more at night. Remember, you are not in a sprint, but running a marathon, and you need to pace yourself at a sustainable level.

  • Packed lecture halls often have dim lights and/or higher CO2 content in the room (due to how densely packed people are), both of which are sleep-inducing for many people. If this is the case, for you, a good way to counteract it is to move your body and get your blood flowing. There are many exercises that can be done while seated, which will not generally be disruptive if you do them toward the back of a classroom. In some larger lecture halls, it may also be possible to actually stand in the back, behind the seats.

  • 6
    An alternative solution to point one is doing something arbitrary during lectures to keep yourself active, for example taking notes (though this can be distracting) or playing extremely unintellectual games that can be played without thinking (this might sound odd, but it actually works). Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 19:13
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    +1 You can stay awake through more boring classes after getting a full night's sleep.
    – Eric
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 21:33
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    @DavidMulder much true. This might look counter-intuitive, but after all, "paying less attention" is still better than "paying 0 attention since you are asleep".
    – o0'.
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 16:29
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    +1 I know several people that had very late or very early shifts on jobs while in school, and thus would have a hard time staying awake in lecture. Standing for all or part of the lecture was always the solution they used. Explaining to the instructor ahead of time what you're doing would probably be a good idea though.
    – DaoWen
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 1:16
  • 1
    Doodling offensive things will keep you more awake than non-offensive things. Fact. Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 2:33

If fatigue is not the issue at hand then I have found the following tactic to be helpful in graduate-level courses and research talks.

I take a few notes on paper with the intention of:

  • identifying three important messages from the presentation;
  • identifying at least one key question for the presenter.

You don't always have to ask the question but the process of identifying the question helps improve focus.

More generally, I have a small notebook that I carry to all research talks these days and the notes are valuable if I need to go find additional references, etc.

  • 2
    +1 and if you absolutely can't find anything to write down, you can always flip to the last page and start drawing something. My notebooks usually had about 3/4 useful notes and 1/4 drawings of random things. And because I put all the drawings in the back, I could cut those pages out and put the book with just the useful stuff in my archive. Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 0:08
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    @Sumyrda: Just writing (or drawing) alone might not be enough for some. I have old lecture notes to proof that: Falling asleep is indicated by my handwriting slowly deteriorating into a single straight line. :-) So the additional mental tasks suggested by GSat might matter.
    – Emil
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 21:46

Make sure you get enough exercise. Young people need to do at least 30 minutes of intensive exercise at least 5 times per week. If you don't do this regularly already, you may not have the physical fitness to start doing this rightaway, you then need to start slowly with exercise and gradually build up your fitnness levels so that you can run for half an hour without gasping for air.

  • "Young people need to do at least [...]" Everyone needs that, not just young people.
    – TylerH
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 17:39

The other popular alternative to getting more sleep is caffeine. Coffee, green/black tea, many sodas, dark chocolate, etc. all contain caffeine.

Just remember that, though it may be socially acceptable, it is still an addictive drug. So don't overdo it...

  • 2
    Is regular caffeine use actually helpful in the long term? The study ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9586865 suggests that it might not be. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 22:58
  • Additionally, Adderall.
    – L0j1k
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 7:35
  • 1
    According to most studies caffeine does not qualify as being addictive in a sense like alcohol, tobacco, amphetamines and others are. And now I am going to get my 6th cup of coffee for today...
    – dirkk
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 15:12
  • Btw, for the Hipster Academics (or Germans) I would like to add Club Mate, which has lots of caffeine and is especially nice during warm weather.
    – dirkk
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 15:14

I had issues falling asleep in some of my classes but I found the link to be that I entered these courses already in a sleepy mindset. For example, classes in which I had friends were much better because I would be hanging out with them before the class, and I'd enter the room in a more active state. Classes where I knew no one or had a long break beforehand were classes I struggled to stay awake in.

I (while completely unqualified to say) strongly believe that your brain can only be so productive throughout the day before you just kind of shut down, so I started to cut back on intense studying between lectures. Instead, I left that for when the day was winding down, so if I got burned out, it was okay.

Between classes, I would be sure to eat well and spend time doing productive things that would not burn me out, such as making study schedules, cleaning my dorm, reassuring my parents that I was still alive...etc. Anything that would take minimal mental energy, but would lessen distractions or otherwise improve my productivity later on.

Conserving mental energy was a big thing for me, as was eating properly and avoiding caffeine dependency. I did find, however, that when I needed a quick jolt to wake me up...nothing would do it like a single sip of Coke. I quickly realize that it wasn't even the sugar or caffeine, it was the carbonation. I replaced it with seltzer and when my buddies in my 8am Physics lab thought I was nuts...well, maybe, but I was wide awake instantly.

This is all very personal fixes to my issues with falling asleep, but I hope some are helpful.


You might want to get tested for sleep apnea. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_apnea for lots of information about it.) The essential point is that you could be getting far less sleep than you think, so no wonder you get sleepy. I had sleep apnea for a long time before it was diagnosed; once it was diagnosed it was quite easy to treat.

I'd also endorse the suggestion in one of the other answers to take notes, but only after making sure there isn't a medical problem.


This simple way to stay awake (but not necessarily alert) worked for me in night school: chew gum.

Even though I was not paying attention, giving me some kind of action instead of sitting completely passive kept me awake more than cups of coffee.


Here's my trick: I find someone else who's falling asleep, and watch them desperately trying to stay awake. It's usually hilarious. This, of course, introduces a new problem: not laughing out loud during the lecture.

Generally the hilarity wakes me up enough that I can return my attention to the speaker.

  • 1
    This one can work. I've employed this trick on occasion. It's not 100% reliable, though – you have to find someone nodding off before they spot you!
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 21:36

I think the best idea is to sit in the first row. You will have to move your head and eyes a lot more during lectures which will keep you a lot more alert. I'm sure the body also releases stress hormones to prevent the awkwardness of sleeping in the first row, or there is some other psychology behind it, but it certainly always helped me.


Standing instead of sitting is what got me through the lectures in Navy Nuclear Power School. Note taking was mandatory (your advisor checked your notes weekly) but I could fall asleep while writing.


Although most has been already said in this thread, There is something that gets me through lengthy conferences and/or block lectures, which I did not see yet mentioned. I found hydrating and fresh air and sunlight to be the best friends. Use the breaks to get your blood pumping, so you can stay alert. Also avoid caffeine as you might get pretty soon accustomed to it and then it is not helping any more. When air is not helping, try to have a little power nap (about ten minutes) before the lecture in question.

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