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New research says starting university classes at 11am or later would improve learning

AP Photo/John Amis
Work smart, not hard.
By Amy X. Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If universities want to encourage better learning, a new study indicates they could do well to restructure their classroom timetables.

Using a sample of first- and second-year college students at the University of Nevada-Reno in the US and Britain’s Open University, a group of researchers analyzed students’ cognitive performance throughout the day and found that the best learning happened in classes that began later in the morning.

Since every person’s chronotype, or sleep pattern, is slightly different, there isn’t one universal start time to benefit everyone—but according to students’ survey responses as well as theoretical data on circadian rhythms parsed by the researchers, starting classes at 11am or later benefits the greatest number of students.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience this week, bolsters prior research indicating that teenagers learn better with late starts; it also extends the studied age group from high school students to college sophomores and freshmen. High school and college classes in the US can start as early as 7am.

“The basic thrust is that the best times of day for learning for college-age students are later than standard class hours begin,” says University of Nevada-Reno sociology professor Mariah Evans, who co-authored the study. “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.”

Some schools have already begun heeding the growing body of research promoting later start times. In 2013, the UCL Academy in London became Britain’s first school to push back its day, letting pupils to arrive at 10am so they can “fully wake up” beforehand.

Preferring late start times doesn’t necessarily mean students are lazy: Evans’s study shows twice as many students consider themselves consider themselves “evening people” as “morning people,” meaning they’re often studying well into the night.

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