University students in Singapore might be getting better sleep—and grades—if their classes started later, according to findings from a Duke-NUS Medical School-led study published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Research in recent years has shown that postponing the start time of high schools improves the amount of sleep that students get and reduces their sleepiness during school hours. But findings are mixed about whether this has a positive impact on grades.

To determine the impact specifically on university students, associate professor Joshua Gooley, PhD, from Duke-NUS’ Neuroscience & Behavioural Disorders Programme and his colleagues used student Wi-Fi connection data, log-ins to university digital learning platforms, and activity data from special sensing watches to conduct large-scale monitoring of class attendance and sleep behavior of tens of thousands of university students.

“We implemented new methods that allow large-scale monitoring of class attendance and sleep behavior by analyzing students’ classroom Wi-Fi connection data and their interactions with digital learning platforms,” says Yeo Sing Chen, PhD, first author of the study, in a press release.

From the data, the researchers found that early class start times were associated with lower attendance, with many students regularly sleeping past the start of such classes. When students did attend an early class, they lost about an hour of sleep. Morning classes on more days of the week were also associated with a lower grade point average.

“If the goal of formal education is to position our students to succeed in the classroom and workforce, why are we forcing many university students into the bad decision of either skipping morning class to sleep more or attending class while sleep-deprived?” says Gooley in a press release. “The take-home message from our study is that universities should reconsider mandatory early morning classes.”

The researchers drew insights using the Wi-Fi connection logs of 23,391 students to find out if early morning classes were associated with lower attendance. They then compared the data with six weeks of watch-derived activity data from a subset of 181 students to determine if the students were sleeping instead of attending early morning classes.

They also analyzed activity data with the day and night patterns of digital learning platform logins of 39,458 students to determine if early morning classes were associated with waking up earlier and getting less sleep. Finally, they studied the grades of 33,818 students and the number of morning classes these students were taking to determine if it impacted their grade point average.

The team is now investigating differences between class attendance, sleep, well-being, and academic performance between early birds and night owls. “We expect to find that evening-type students will be at a learning disadvantage in early morning classes and have lower class attendance, shorter sleep, poorer mental health, and lower grades compared with their peers,” says Gooley in a press release.

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