A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests that college students learn better when their classes start later. The study, a joint effort between Mariah Evans and Jonathan Kelley at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Paul Kelley at The Open University in the United Kingdom, combined survey questions with a neuroscience-based theoretical model that analyzed the relationship between sleep and cognitive functioning.
Evans, a professor of sociology, found herself wondering why the students in her morning classes were so likely to fall asleep. And she realized that, while there has been extensive research done on optimal class times for middle and high school students, there was no similar work for college students. "There has been evidence over time from specific studies indicating that teenagers' body clocks are set at a different time than older folks," she told NPR. "Medical research suggests that this goes on well into your 20s, so we decided to look at college students."
The study concluded that students are typically divided up into two “chronotypes”—what we could call “early birds” and “night owls.” “Night owls” far outnumber the “early birds” and, for them, 8 a.m. classes are a struggle. "It has nothing to do with laziness. It's not in their control. It's to do with their bodies," Kelley told NPR. "It's like making an adult wake up at 5 a.m. every single day. It is just not a good idea." This is particularly true for first- and second-year students whose body clocks are even more like those of high school students. Students are more likely to do better in classes that begin at 10 or 11 a.m.
While similar studies about high school students have yet to result in later school start times, Evans hopes that students will at least be able to use the information to make smarter choices when it comes to signing up for classes. And hopefully, institutions will come around to making more afternoon classes available. “Traditionally, institutions have tried to tailor the humans to the organization,” the study says, “but research suggests that, at least as far as time is concerned, it is more efficient, productive, and humane to align the organization's schedules to the natural time patterns of the humans who study and work in them.” Wouldn’t that be nice?