You snooze, you... win? Science says 8:00 a.m. lectures can hurt student performance

Later start times tied to better grades, health, and mental health

Most grads who've experienced the dreaded 8 a.m. lecture at some point in their college years can attest to the fact that it isn't the optimal learning environment—and now there's research explaining why. 

According to a recent study by the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) in collaboration with The Open University (OU), cognitive performance in college students significantly improves after 11:00 a.m. and doesn't hit its peak until the afternoon and evening.   

In conducting the study, researchers from UNR and OU surveyed 190 students at their respective schools and also synthesized existing research on circadian neuroscience, sleep, and cognition.

According to the authors, studies from neuroscience demonstrate that biologically, young adults' "natural" day begins nearly two hours later than that of older adults—which the survey responses confirm.

On average, survey respondents reported feeling at only 70% of their best when starting class at 8:00 a.m. When asked whether they considered themselves "morning people" or "evening people," two-thirds of respondents identified with the latter. 

What success means to students, in their own words

So why then, do many college courses begin so early?

According to Mariah Evans, one of the study's authors and a sociology professor at UNR, school schedules are built to be convenient for the older adults that created them. Evans explains that adults have a much earlier body clock, which makes it "hard for [them] to understand the degree to which 'teen shift' is real."

The "teen shift" phenomenon is certainly real—at one high school in Massachusetts, pushing the start time back from 7:25 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. reduced the number of D and F grades by half.

Studies have also correlated early school start times with increased risk for teen car crashes, depression, suicide, binge drinking, and drug overdoses. The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Sleep Foundation, and the National Education Association all advocate for later school start times.

But teen shift doesn't abruptly end after high school. Evans says their research found it carries over to college-aged students too.

Further research on sleep and cognitive function shows:

The authors encourage colleges to provide more flexibility in course scheduling, for example, by offering more evening options or asynchronous online learning options (Korn, Wall Street Journal, 4/23; Savidge, UNR.edu, 4/11; Vaznis, Boston Globe, 3/10/16).

Another factor that can affect students' learning? The color of the classroom


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