Want a Good Reason to Avoid Early Morning Classes?

Posted By Terri Williams on May 23, 2017 at 7:59 am
Want a Good Reason to Avoid Early Morning Classes?

Typical college students tend to stay up late at night, making it hard to rise and shine for early morning classes. New evidence suggests that they might have a good reason for dreading the sound of that a.m. alarm and early-morning classes.

A recent report on time patterns and their functions in human neuroscience reveals that college students don’t perform as well when they take early morning classes. While most college courses start at 8 a.m., researchers believe that students would do better if classes started much later – in fact an 11 a.m. or 12 noon start time was considered ideal. At a time when too few college students graduate and too few graduate on time, it’s worth exploring other factors that may affect academic performance.

Why sleep trumps early morning classes

Ann M. Romaker, MD, associate professor in the division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells GoodCall®, “At puberty, most of us develop a shift in our circadian rhythms to a later internal body clock.” In addition, she says that from the teen years to the mid-20s, young adults need anywhere from 8 hours to 10 hours of sleep. Most don’t sleep that much, so they are not operating at a maximum level of alertness.

“Also, we all experience something called sleep inertia when we wake up, taking 2 to 3 hours before we are actually alert,” Romaker explains, adding that there’s a tendency to try to “fast track” that process with various forms of caffeine. “Most teens and young adults are not fully alert until mid to late morning, or even afternoon, depending on how far their body clocks have shifted,” she concludes.

But, does sleep really make that much of a difference in the performance of college students – to the extent that a later start time should be given serious consideration? Tim Bono, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and a lecturer in psychological & brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, thinks so.

Like Romaker, he believes that a later start time allows students to get more sleep. “The brain does a lot of important work when we sleep, including strengthening neural circuits that affect mental acuity and emotion regulation.”

Some of those activities are crucial to college students. “Part of that work involves memory consolidation from material the student learned the day before,” Bono tells GoodCall®. “More sleep is associated with many important outcomes.”

For example, he says that there is a decrease in traffic accidents on the Monday following the fall shift in Daylight Savings Time. On the other hand, when the time changes in the spring, we lose an hour of sleep, and Bono says there is an increase in traffic accidents – and also in heart attack and strokes. “When we get extra time to sleep – whether by a shift from Daylight Savings Time, or due to a later start time for work or school – the brain has more time to sharpen our cognitive and emotional capabilities for the next day.”

Shifts in rhythms are important

Bono also agrees with Romaker that the shift in the circadian rhythm among adolescents and young adults is a factor. “This results in optimal wake times and alertness levels occurring later in the day than at other stages of life.”

Bono admits some college students may be “morning people” and do their best work during those hours but says this is not the norm. “A later start time to the school day aligns with this shift, enabling cognitively demanding tasks to occur closer to the (later) times of day when young adults are naturally at their optimal levels of alertness.”

However, there could also be another reason why college student may not perform as well in the morning. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, medical advisory board member at the Nutritional Magnesium Association, believes it’s due to a nutritional deficiency.

“The mineral ‘magnesium,’ which is a brain health/memory enhancer mineral is at its lowest levels in the early morning and late afternoon,” Dean tells GoodCall®. “Higher magnesium levels later in the morning help with focus and concentration.”

Dean points to research from MIT that reveals magnesium is a memory enhancer. “Particular brain receptors important for learning and memory depend on magnesium for their regulation,” Dean explains. “The researchers describe magnesium as an absolutely necessary component of the cerebrospinal fluid in order to keep these learning and memory receptors active.”

Considering the high cost of a college degree and the fact that students often second guess school and career choices, a later start time could help students make better decisions and improve academic performance.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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