PhotoMany students who take college courses know the dread of having to wake up for an early morning lecture. While some have to take time to muster their mental faculties (usually with the help of some coffee), others might find the time slot preferable to classes later in the day.

So, which time is better for learning?

That’s the question that researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno set out to answer. And, after conducting a multi-approach analysis, they found that classes conducted later in the day allow most students to perform at peak cognitive levels.

"The basic thrust is that the best times of day for learning for college-age students are later than standard class hours begin. Especially for freshmen and sophomores, we should be running more afternoon and evening classes as part of the standard curriculum,” said co-author Mariah Evans, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Most prefer later classes

The findings aren’t exactly groundbreaking for the scientific community. Previous research conducted at the high school level has also suggested that students would benefit from a later start. Researchers from the current study say this most likely has to do with the biological difference between most young people and adults.

"Neuroscientists have documented the time shift using biological data -- on average, teens' biologically 'natural' day begins about two hours later than is optimal for prime age adults,” said Evans.

For the purposes of the study, the researchers asked participating college students about their preferred sleeping times and to rate their “fitness for cognitive activities” for each hour of a 24-hour cycle. The results showed that twice as many college-aged students rated their ability to learn more highly later in the day, after 11 a.m. or noon.

While the results seem strongly in favor of a later start for college classes, the researchers do admit that there isn’t exactly a “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning times. For each start time to the academic day, they say that one or more chronotype is disadvantaged; however, starting later in the day does appear to disadvantage the least number of people.

Changing class times?

The researchers say their work supports the moves by colleges and universities to offer later afternoon and evening classes to their undergraduate curriculums. Still, they do question whether the standard 9 a.m. start time for most institutions is a sustainable path going forward.

"This raises the question as to why conventional universities start their lectures at 9 a.m. or even earlier when our research reveals that this limits the performance of their students," said researcher Jonathan Kelley. "This work is very helpful for asynchronous online learning as it allows for the student to target their study time to align with their personal rhythm and at the time of day when they know they are most effective."

The full study has been published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.


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