Early-morning lectures are surely the bane of most students’ existence. Whether it’s essay deadlines, an active social life or simply spending a night waxing lyrical about a topic you don’t know much about with your flatmates, it seems that most students are in a perpetual state of being tired. Early morning lectures are often missed, or attended in body but not in mind. “I had a 9am” is a valid excuse for the foulest of moods, and the only surefire way to escape a night out you really don’t want to attend.
But it seems that it’s not just querulous attitudes to blame for this hatred of early morning lectures: the science is firmly on the side of students.
Dr Paul Kelley is an honorary associate of sleep, circadian and memory neuroscience at the Open University. Previously an honorary clinical research associate at the University of Oxford, Kelley’s research has heavily focused on the need for secondary schools and universities to implement later starting hours for students. In an email statement to The University Times, Kelley explains that his research has shown that later starting hours are crucial to a student’s sleep, health and performance.
“University days generally start at fixed times in the morning, often early morning, without regard to optimal functioning times for students with different chronotypes.” The chronotype that Kelley refers to can be explained as the sleeping habits of a person: some of us fall asleep before midnight and rise with the sun, while others burn the midnight oil and – given the choice – won’t be seen before noon.
“Education and work generally start at fixed times”, Kelley says, “mostly early and with no adjustment for different chronotypes among those who study and work. However, in adolescence and early adulthood optimal wake and sleep times are shifted 2–3 h later in the day, and yet this group are still required to conform to education start times more appropriate to young children and older adults. In line with neuroscience-based sleep research, survey-based data show that these undergraduates have a marked preference for much later working times than is now usual”.
There are many other factors besides time of day that affect attendance, for instance some modules are now available online and do not require ‘attendance’
In one of Kelley’s studies, he concludes that the current standard 9am start is unsuitable for university students, suggesting instead that “for a single start time, the data suggest that starting anywhere between 11am and 1pm would be close to optimal for these undergraduate students”.
Dr Gabrielle Kelly, an associate professor in statistics at University College Dublin (UCD), has carried out research regarding students’ lecture attendance. Her results did not yield clear conclusions about the best time of day for lectures to begin, but they do show patterns when it comes to student attendance at early lectures. In an email statement to The University Times, Kelly explained that a research study carried out in the College of Science in UCD, “attendances were higher for lectures held from 11-4 compared to earlier or later times. This was true for all levels”.
However, Kelly acknowledges that “no firm conclusions” can be drawn. The results, she says, “are based on small sample sizes so must be interpreted with caution” because “there are many other factors besides time of day that affect attendance, for instance some modules are now available online and do not require ‘attendance’ while many modules now post lecture notes online and this perhaps also affects attendance”.
Lectures starting at 9am, the devil in students’ minds, are inevitably the most difficult classes to attend, so when Durham University tried to introduce 8am starts last year, the backlash was predictably fierce. A campaign led by Durham Students’ Union ultimately forced the college to reverse its decision. Sleep had triumphed.
Speaking to The University Times, George Walker, the union’s president, said one of the biggest issues students had was that they hadn’t even been consulted about the decision: “It was noticed by students that on the timetable the university released there were some courses that had lectures scheduled for 8am, which was outside what was previously the regular hours of 9pm to 6pm.”
“That was something that was introduced that hadn’t really been consulted on with the students’ union – we hadn’t even been aware that it was a possibility”, he said. “So when that happened and was covered by the student media, it generated a lot of anger and backlash from students, and the SU came out strongly against it as well.”
Walker said that there was a “huge volume of students making clear how unhappy they were about it”, as well as concerns raised about the students this change would affect: “There were a lot of really good arguments made by various people such as our Students With Disabilities Association about how it would affect groups of students who are already particularly marginalised and find it harder to access education – students with disabilities, students with caring responsibilities, students who work alongside their degrees and how these were the students particularly likely to struggle to make lectures at that time or to be able to have the best possible learning experience.”
In early adulthood, optimal wake and sleep times are shifted two hours later in the day, and yet this group are still required to conform to education start times more appropriate to young children and older adults
A combination of widespread student anger, coverage by student media and meetings between university officials and the students’ union eventually led to the university’s removal of 8am lectures by changing the timetables around. But Walker warned that growing student numbers and a space that isn’t expanding to match means that the issues that gave rise to the early starts have not gone away. Capacity – a problem plaguing many universities – could necessitate the reintroduction of the 8am classes: “We have to keep a really close eye on it this year and in future years because the university are going to struggle to keep up with all the students they have to accommodate due to expanding numbers when the capacity just isn’t there to match that.”
The science, then, is in favour of universities starting lectures later in order to give students the best learning experience. But with colleges unlikely to change their timetabling philosophy anytime soon – despite the evidence – students will likely have to keep deciding each morning between the shower and the snooze button.