NPR logo Down With 8 A.M. Classes: Undergrads Learn Better Later In The Day, Study Finds

Down With 8 A.M. Classes: Undergrads Learn Better Later In The Day, Study Finds

LA Johnson/NPR
College student sleeping on dorm room floor
LA Johnson/NPR

Mariah Evans, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, began to notice a trend in her morning classes: Her students were falling asleep.

While this would make most feel discouraged in their teaching abilities or agitated over their students' idleness, Evans instead was curious. Was there more to this than just laziness?

A recent study by Evans; a colleague at Reno, Jonathan Kelley; and Paul Kelley of the The Open University in the U.K. sought to answer this question. The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience last month.

The study took two approaches. The researchers surveyed 190 first- and second-year college students. They also analyzed the relationship between sleep and cognitive functioning from a neuroscience perspective.

Both approaches agreed: College classes start too early in the morning for students' brains.

While most colleges have start times of around 8 a.m., Jonathan Kelley advises NPR Ed that the ideal start time would be more like 10 or 11 a.m.

The reason: People fall into different "chronotypes," which people know as "early birds" and "night owls." In this sample, night owls outnumbered early birds by far.

The reasons for this are biological, says Evans.

"There has been evidence over time from specific studies indicating that teenagers' body clocks are set at a different time than older folks," she says. "Medical research suggests that this goes on well into your 20s, so we decided to look at college students."

While there is no ideal start time for everyone, up to 83 percent of students could be at their best performance if colleges allowed them to choose their own ideal starting time for a regular six-hour day, according to Kelley.

The idea of students not working to their highest potential because of too-early timing is not a new phenomenon. Middle schools and high schools across the country have long been advised by researchers to start at later times for the sake of the students' education, and sometimes, even for the sake of their health.

Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota is one of those researchers campaigning for schools to start later. Wahlstrom did similar research on the effects of early start times on the health and academic performance of high school students. She also found that waking up at the crack of dawn prevents students from working to their best ability.

It makes sense for college students in their first years to have the same sleep patterns as high school students, says Wahlstrom, agreeing with Evans' point that the sleep cycle of adolescents is biological in nature.

So what should colleges and their students do to combat this issue? The researchers say that being conscious of the problem and adapting to it is the way to go.

"We want the students to learn," says Evans. "We go to great lengths to increase academic performance with methods that are less effective than the free solution of just changing the timings."

Students themselves would benefit from being aware and educated about their own sleep cycles, says Wahlstrom. She advises college students, except for the rare early birds, to refrain from signing up for classes that make them wake up before 8 a.m., so they can be at full functioning capacity throughout the day.

Kelley emphasizes that institutions should be considerate of their students.

"It has nothing to do with laziness. It's not in their control. It's to do with their bodies," says Kelley. "It's like making an adult wake up at 5 a.m. every single day. It is just not a good idea."