Study finds college students reach peak mental function starting at 11 a.m.

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A recent study found that college students don’t feel at their best mentally during their early morning classes.

Students who feel groggy and unproductive in their 8 a.m. classes are probably not alone.

A recent study found that college students don’t feel at their best mentally during their early morning classes. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, and The Open University in the United Kingdom, discovered that most students don’t reach their academic peak until 11 a.m. on a given day.

“The peak times of performance move later in the day, people feel better later in the day, we get fewer absences, we get better emotional self-regulation and things like that,” said Mariah Evans, an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The study was conducted through two different processes: a survey and through examining known science.

The survey-based model focused on responses to a survey of “190 mostly first and second year university students” from an undisclosed North American public university, according to the study. Students were asked if they felt their best at times starting at 5 a.m. and continuing onto 4 a.m. the next day.

The neuroscience-based model used circadian and sleep deprivation research to map out a science-based schedule for a university student. The model determined that there was a not one perfect starting time for all students.

Together, scientists combined these tactics to discover that students felt at their best in a range between 11 a.m. and ending around 9 p.m. The report found that the survey-based model found results that were surprisingly similar to those of the neuroscience-based model. In the end, the study concluded that the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day was not ideal for university students, and that pushing it to start anywhere from two to four hours later would allow for peak performance.

Syracuse University will offer classes that begin as early as 8 a.m. and end as late as 10:45 p.m., according to the MySlice class database for the fall 2017 semester. However, this system it allows SU students to select where to place certain classes in their schedule, which the study found was also important.

Evans said her team’s research ultimately showed that optimal learning happens when students are able to choose their own start times.

Professors from both universities involved in the study agreed that it is important for universities to continue to offer classes in the early morning. Both pointed to survey data that showed there are groups of students who feel more comfortable in early morning classes.

“It would be in the university’s best interest to begin to adjust the way they use time,” said Paul Kelley, who is an honorary associate of sleep, circadian and memory neuroscience at The Open University. “Students will actually do better, and if the students do better, that helps the university in its ranking … so it’s a win-win for students and for the universities.”

The results of this study are not without precedent. A 2014 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that classes for middle school and high school students should not begin until 8:30 a.m. at the earliest. The report cited that sleep cycles begin to shift up to two hours later when puberty starts.

“There are a lot of clever people, there are a lot of clever solutions, and I think we are moving now into that period where many more universities are using many more methods in delivery,” Kelley said. “Now, we’re talking about scheduling to get the best out of students and that can only be a good thing.”


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