Early classes may increase students’ grade point average

William Evans

Students still registering for spring semester courses may want to begin their class schedules in the early morning.

A pair of psychologists from St. Lawrence University in New York found that for every hour a class begins after 8 a.m., average GPA decreased by about a tenth of a point.

Pamela Thacher, who co-wrote the study, said a student with an early morning class would earn a higher grade in the same class taken later in the day.

While some college students sleep in with the security of a late class schedule, high school and middle school students typically begin their school days at 8 a.m.

Research suggests the early school days of high school and middle school students increase their likelihood of sleep deprivation, which can impair cognition and retention in the classroom.

Thacher wanted to see if the theory behind early classes leading to sleep deprivation and thus poorer class performance holds true for college students.

The conclusion: college students are getting more sleep due to later classes, but that prolonged sleep does not boost their GPAs.

The culprit: late-night drinking.

“One thing they don’t ask about a lot in high school is alcohol abuse and partying,” she said. “What we looked at was the possibility of students who like to drink choosing later class times in college.

“Students in college who had later class start times were drinking more frequently and more heavily,” she said. “There’s a significant subset of students who are going out drinking when they have later class times.”

At smaller universities, such as St. Lawrence University where Thacher works, not much choice exists for class times. The smaller student body and smaller faculty pool means fewer alternate sections for a particular class, which means a class schedule may have to begin early in the morning despite that schedule’s conflict with a student’s morning and evening habits.

“There’s very little choice involved, so students must take the class that’s available,” she said. “It’s not up to students to build their schedules according to what they want, so most students end up taking a class when they can.”

Still, at a larger collegiate institution such as Alabama, where alternate class times may be abundant, class time is not the best indicator of academic success.

“Whether a night-owl or a lark, pretty much nobody does well if they stay up late and go drinking,” she said. “Class start time is not as important as what you do the night before. Classroom performance has a lot to do with drinking habits.

“Class start time is what students like to hear, that is if they’re assigned to an 8 a.m. class, they feel reassured because they get some benefit to divide their time up a little differently,” she said. “But without knowing the specific details of the student, early class start times keep you on the straight and narrow.”

David DeWitt, senior fellow in the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, said he does not schedule any of the classes he teaches before 11 a.m. because bleary-eyed students in the morning show less interest in class and more interest in returning to bed.

“At this point in my career, none of my classes have started before 11 a.m. and usually not until 3 p.m.,” he said in an emailed statement. “I wouldn’t want to start before 11 a.m. because my past history shows that earlier times bring more lethargy or indifference. Worst of all were 8 a.m. classes, in which students were often asleep at their desks.”

Will Taylor, a junior majoring in journalism, said his engagement and performance in a class depends more on the appeal of the class than its time slot in the day.

“If I’m really interested in the class, then time isn’t as much of a factor, but I generally don’t have trouble waking up and getting to class in the morning,” he said.