Frank Huang / Mustang News

Turns out, puberty could be to blame for why college students don’t love waking up for 7 a.m. classes.

According to a recent study, college students learn best when they’re at their optimal state of alertness, which is usually at 10 a.m. Even so, Cal Poly begins many of its classes at 7 a.m. This spring quarter, Cal Poly held 55 7 a.m. classes compared to 77 during Spring 2016, Associate Registrar Susan Olivas said in an email to Mustang News.

According to Olivas, classes are scheduled at 7 a.m. to accommodate as many as possible.

Study stats

Researchers Mariah Evans and Jonathan Kelley from University of Nevada, Reno and Paul Kelley from Open University in the United Kingdom found out why 10 a.m. is the sweet spot.
Their study concluded that biological changes that occur during adolescent years contribute to the shift in college students’ sleeping schedules.

“The crux of the matter in the temporal misalignment problem is that biological changes beginning in puberty shift wake and sleep times two to three hours later in the day,” the researchers said in their study.

Those biological changes involve melatonin, the hormone responsible for the onset of sleepiness. When an adolescent goes through puberty, melatonin’s release is delayed. With this prolonged onset, adolescents are more likely to stay up later because drowsiness hasn’t kicked in.

According to the study, the two- to three-hour delay of melatonin reaches its peak at 19 years old and doesn’t “revert” to a previous pattern until the mid-20s, the researchers wrote, citing a study from 2004.

“If you’re an adolescent, your sleep wake cycle is shifted relative to the rest of humanity with the exception of infants [and seniors],” psychology and child development professor Gary Laver said.
Because college students tend to stay awake in the later hours, it means they go to bed later. In turn, they need more time to sleep before their 7 a.m. class. Even so, the California State University (CSU) system does not have a policy regarding class start times, according to CSU spokeswoman Elizabeth Chapin.

Cal Poly has a history of holding classes at 7 a.m. dating back to the 1980s, and possibly before, Olivas said.

Amid the absence of a time-sensitive schedule for classes, the 190 students surveyed in the study reported feeling at their best around 10 a.m. From that hour on, their optimal functioning points stay positive as the clock ticks into the afternoon. But, when the evening hours creep up, students reported a decline in their performance at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. They reported feeling even worse as the time approaches midnight and a further decline after 2 a.m.

Even so, the delay in melatonin could leave students wide awake even after their first signs of decline at 9 p.m.

Does that mean students learn better even at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night when they’re supposedly up and about?

Not necessarily.

“Alertness depends on homeostatic pressure, which is a linear function that says, ‘The longer you’ve been awake, the more tired you are,’” assistant professor of psychology and child development Kelly Bennion said.  “That said, having late night classes is not best for students.”

Generally speaking, a 24-hour day consists of 16 hours awake and eight hours asleep, according to Laver.

For college students, 24-hour days look only slightly different from their younger and older counterparts because they start later. That is, provided they’re waking up at later times.

Their days might start at 9 a.m. on the weekend if they go to sleep at 1 a.m. Even so, they  still follow the 24-hour day like the person who wakes up at 6 a.m. and goes to sleep at 10 p.m

“College students are in a completely different time zone than older adults,” Bennion said. “I tell parents that it shouldn’t be any surprise that their teenager is grumpy at 6 a.m.”

Bennion said considering the hours in which college students go to sleep, beginning class at 9 a.m. would be an optimal starting time.

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