Early morning college classes can be a prescription for poor attendance and lower grades, a new study suggests.
But starting classes later boosted both, as students got more sleep, were more likely to attend and were less likely to be groggy, which leads to better grades, researchers reported.
“Early morning classes likely impair learning due to effects on presenteeism — being in class, but not able to perform at one’s best due to sleepiness — and absenteeism,” said lead researcher Joshua Gooley. He’s an associate professor in the neuroscience and behavioral disorders department of Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.
“This is alarming, given that the purpose of formal education is to prepare our students with the knowledge and skills to be successful learners and workers,” Gooley said. “Universities should avoid scheduling mandatory early morning classes at 8 a.m., because they are incompatible with optimal sleep health and learning performance.
“Early morning classes force many students into a bad decision — skip class and sleep more, or sleep less to make it to class. Delaying the start time of classes to 9 a.m., or preferably 10 a.m., could have benefits for university students’ sleep and learning,” he said.
For the study, Gooley and his colleagues used Wi-Fi connection logs to collect data on nearly 23,400 college students in Singapore, to see if early morning classes affected attendance.
They also analyzed data on the day and night patterns of more than 39,400 students, to see if early morning classes were linked with waking up earlier and getting less sleep. The researchers then looked at the grades of nearly 34,000 students, to see if having early morning classes affected their grade point average.
They found that early classes were tied with lower attendance, as many students slept past these classes. Students who did attend an early class lost about an hour of sleep, the researchers noted. Last but not least, students with morning classes on more days of the week had a lower grade point average.
The researchers are now investigating differences between class attendance, sleep, well-being and academic performance between early birds and night owls. Gooley said they expect that night owls will do worse in early morning classes than early birds.
Their latest report was published recently in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
One U.S. expert unconnected to the study wasn’t surprised by the new findings.
“The results of this paper really corroborate what we have been saying in the sleep community for many years, which is that everybody needs to sleep more and that teenagers, in particular, are sleep-deprived,” said Lauren Broch, a sleep psychologist at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
Part of the problem may be that young people don’t value sleep as much as they should, she noted.
“That’s probably true to some extent,” Broch said.
“But I think it’s really more that. They’re juggling a lot of things and they’re teenagers, and [they] are forced to make one of two undesirable choices when faced with the early class, to either sleep longer instead of attending the class or wake up earlier to attend the class,” she said. “They’re put in a difficult position, so we need to recognize that and not have school start so early.”
Broch added that going to class sleepy means not paying attention as well and is likely a part of why these students have lower grades. Also, being sleep-deprived follows you throughout the day, affecting all your activities.
“As a society, we have to respect sleep more and set students up for success by having schools start later,” Broch said.
For more on early classes and sleep, see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Joshua Gooley, PhD, associate professor, neuroscience and behavioral disorders, Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore; Lauren Broch, PhD, sleep psychologist, Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Nature Human Behaviour, Feb. 20, 2023
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