New research findings support having later start times for university classes

Finding it a challenge to get out of bed for that 8am lecture? Students wishing that university classes could start later in the day may now find unlikely allies in the form of Associate Professor Joshua Gooley and Dr Yeo Sing Chen, whose research proposes that having later classes and more opportunities for much-needed sleep may be more advantageous for students.

In a research paper published in Nature Human Behaviour in late-February 2023, Assoc Prof Gooley and Dr Yeo, along with their colleagues from Duke-NUS Medical School and the Institute for Applied Learning Sciences and Educational Technology (ALSET) at NUS, found an association between having early morning classes and an impact on behaviour and learning-related outcomes.

Past research has established the importance of adequate sleep and class attendance towards optimal cognitive performance and readiness to learn. Being present in class also increases students’ interactions with instructors and classmates, and provides structured time for covering key learning points. Building on these previous findings, the researchers sought to understand the applications of these factors for university students, who face different environmental pressures relative to pre-university education or working adults, and the impact of adaptations to changes in social and learning environments.

Impact of early morning classes

The study by Assoc Prof Gooley and Dr Yeo found that having early classes contributed to sleep debt and mistimed sleep – as students with early morning classes often reported less sleep or slept past the start of their early classes. Students who had morning classes on more days of the week also showed poorer academic performance.

The research team used data drawn from Wi-Fi connection logs of more than 20,000 undergraduate students to estimate students’ lecture attendance rates. They also analysed activity data of over 17.4 million logins over five semesters to the Learning Management System from close to 40,000 students to determine if having early morning classes were associated with less sleep. In addition, the team tracked activity data from motion sensors in watches worn by 181 students over a six-week period to assess their sleep behaviours on school and non-school days.

“If the goal of formal education is to position our students to succeed in the classroom and workforce, why are we forcing many university students into the bad decision of either skipping morning class to sleep more, or attending class while sleep-deprived?” asked Assoc Prof Gooley. “The take-home message from our study is that universities should reconsider mandatory early morning classes.”

The team is now investigating differences between class attendance, sleep, well-being and academic performance between early birds and night owls. “We expect to find that evening-type students will be at a learning disadvantage in early morning classes and have lower class attendance, shorter sleep, poorer mental health and lower grades compared with their peers,” said Assoc Prof Gooley.

See Duke-NUS’ press release here.