Commentary: Why do university classes start so early if it is bad for sleep and learning?
Adolescents and young adults are biologically programmed to go to bed later, so even the most self-disciplined student will struggle to go to bed in time for an early morning class, says Joshua J Gooley of Duke-NUS Medical School.
SINGAPORE: Students who obtain healthy sleep and attend their classes are better learners. There is a common practice at universities, however, that may stand in the way of students sleeping well and showing up for class: The school day starts too early.
The issue of healthy school start times has largely centred on adolescents. There is abundant scientific evidence that adolescents obtain inadequate sleep when they have to get up early for school.
Starting school later has been shown to benefit students’ sleep, daytime alertness and mental health. This has led to widespread endorsement of later secondary school scheduling by medical professionals and scientists.
For instance, US organisations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that high schools start no earlier than 8.30am. In Singapore, the Ministry of Education (MOE) gives schools the autonomy to start at 7.30am or later.
In a study published in 2018, Singapore researchers found that delaying the start time from 7.30am to 8.15am in a secondary school led to sustained improvements in students’ sleep and well-being. While the topic of delaying school start times has been discussed in Singapore parliament, there has not been widespread traction among schools in adopting healthier start times.
LINKS BETWEEN SCHOOL START TIMES AND SLEEP
My research team recently turned its attention to university students, who have been largely overlooked in the debate on healthy school start times. Like adolescents, they often have early morning classes, beginning around 8am, which are out of sync with their natural sleep-wake pattern.
In tens of thousands of university students, we showed that early morning classes were associated with shorter sleep opportunities and lower lecture attendance. Students lost about an hour of sleep when their first class of the day was at 8am, and the attendance rate was below 40 per cent. Moreover, students slept past the start of nearly one-third of classes that took place at 8am.
Our findings suggest that university students are forced into making a difficult decision when taking early morning classes: Should I sleep less so that I can attend class, or should I skip class so that I can sleep more?
The outcomes of these choices - learning while sleep-deprived or missing out on valuable in-person learning time - may prevent students from reaching their full learning potential. In fact, we found that students who had morning classes on more days of the week had lower grades.
When should classes start at universities? Based on our study, classes should start no earlier than 9am if the goal is to improve sleep and class attendance, while the ideal start time for most students would be 10am.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SCHOOL START TIMES AND SLEEP
The recommendation to delay the start of the school day is often greeted with scepticism. If the goal is to help students obtain a healthy amount of sleep, why don’t they just go to bed earlier?
Actually, we found that university students went to bed earlier when they had a class at 8am the next day. The problem was that they woke up more than 90 minutes earlier than usual, so they still lost out on sleep.
Critics of starting school later often point to discipline as the root problem for inadequate sleep. The argument is that self-disciplined students will go to bed earlier and get the sleep that they need.
To be sure, students with better self-discipline are more likely to go to bed at a reasonable hour. However, students’ ability to adjust their sleep behaviour earlier is dependent not only on their will, but also their underlying biology.
Bedtimes are usually the latest during late adolescence and early adulthood, corresponding to the age range of most university students. The delay in bedtimes is heavily influenced by age-dependent changes in our sleep biology. In a sense, university students are biologically programmed to go to bed later, which can make it difficult to fall asleep early, even in the most self-disciplined student.
Relatedly, there is a substantial heritable component of sleep timing. This can give rise to differences in sleep between morning larks and night owls. Students with a later genetically-determined sleep pattern may not be able to adjust to early school start times. The morning larks, on the other hand, can still wake up early and would not be disadvantaged by starting school an hour later.
Another argument against delaying school start times is that students need to be prepared for working life. The basic premise is that students should learn to adapt to early classes now because they might have to work early in the future.
There is no empirical evidence, however, that students can physiologically adapt to sleep loss caused by early school start times. Putting students on the path of short sleep does not help them later on. It simply lengthens the amount of time that they are chronically sleep-deprived and puts them at greater risk for health problems.
THE WAY FORWARD TO SETTING HEALTHY SCHOOL START TIMES
If there is so much evidence in favour of starting school later, why hasn’t it happened already? Historically, campaigns for delaying school start time have been most successful when championed by a key educational policy-maker or politician. Impassioned sleep scientists can provide the evidence, but ultimately there needs to be an endorsement from educational leaders who can enact policy change.
In many ways, it may be easier for universities to lead the charge compared with secondary schools. Universities do not need to contend with issues often cited by secondary schools as barriers to delaying school start times, including inconvenience caused to working parents, busing and after-school activities.
It is important to take a look at why classes start early at universities. Is it because this is the way that it was done in the past, or is it due to resource constraints?
If it is simply an issue of precedent, then there is little in the way of establishing a new norm to benefit students. Early morning classes could be scheduled later in the day if classrooms are not being fully utilised, without having to push back the end of the school day.
As a sleep scientist and educator, I would urge universities to reconsider their class scheduling practices. Ending early morning classes can lead to improvements in students’ sleep and learning. This will better position our students to succeed in the classroom and workforce.
Joshua J Gooley is Associate Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School.