Balancing sleep and class schedules key to success at SRU


Students in a class

While the most active time for classes at Slippery Rock University is the 10 a.m. hour, students are encouraged to get more sleep so they are better prepared for all their classes.

Sept. 7, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Pardon us if we seem to be boasting, but with enrollment and campus life thriving, it seems as though any time is a great time to be at Slippery Rock University. Technically speaking though, when is the best time to be at SRU, as in the best time of day to take a class?

Well, there are many variables when it comes to finding that "perfect" time on a class schedule, including sleep.

"Students' first priority is choosing classes they need to graduate, but they also choose classes based on time, convenience, their work schedule and the instructor," said Emily Keener, SRU assistant professor of psychology. "What if people were more intentional? I think people can pay attention to their own rhythms and what is working for them."

Keener Profile photo


Keener teaches a Developmental Psychology class in which sleep patterns are a key part of understanding adolescents and how lack of sleep can affect people's moods, development and overall wellness. According to Keener, adolescents typically stay up later than adults and the reason is biological, not behavioral, although staying up late staring at their device screens doesn't help.

Many elementary and secondary schools are considering recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics to move class start times later in the morning so students can get more sleep and be more receptive to learning. However, research has shown that sleep patterns for adolescents extend into young adulthood and their college years. A study conducted at the University of Nevada, Reno, claims that the best time for college-age students to learn is after 11 a.m.

While a majority of classes at SRU start after 11 a.m., the hour of the day with the most classes scheduled, at nearly 15 percent of total SRU classes, is during the 10 o'clock hour.

"College students are chronically sleep deprived," Keener said. "But there are so many things that affect your alertness. It's not just sleep. Before lunch you might be hungry and distracted but after lunch you might just feel like crashing. It's hard to say whether a 1 p.m. class is good or not, but if you know that you are up every single night until 1 a.m. no matter how hard you try (to go to sleep), you should not take an 8 a.m. class if you can avoid it."

At SRU, the earliest classes begin at 8 a.m. but that first hour of the day is the second least scheduled hour for classes compared to the other hour-long windows before 5 p.m. It would also be the least active hour for class if not for Common Hour, the 60 minutes reserved on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for university-wide meetings and activities.

Although the University of Nevada, Reno researchers suggest optimal class times are in the afternoon or evening, they do acknowledge personal choice as the best time and that respondents identify with different chronotypes, such as being "evening" or "morning" people, based on their sleep patterns that influence their physical and cognitive performance. College-aged students are twice as likely to call themselves "evening" people than "morning" people, and the night-owl sleep habits of adolescents can continue well into a person's mid-20s. Adults are different, however, as indicated by studies highlighted in Daniel Pink's book "When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing," which show that fewer than a quarter of adults are the chronotype that Pink calls "night owls." Most adults, Pink said, have chronotypes where they peak during the morning and experience a mid-afternoon trough.

In other words, college students: pay attention to your sleep schedule.

The CDC recommends at least seven hours of sleep for adults each night, but only 35 percent of U.S. adults get enough sleep. According a recent survey of SRU students, 23 percent reported sleep difficulties affecting their academic performance, which is among the top three reasons for poor grades, behind stress (34 percent) and anxiety (28 percent).

Staff at the SRU Student Health Services said that adequate sleep, both in quantity and quality, could help reduce the release of stress hormones.

"When we provide advice for improving overall student wellness, getting adequate sleep is often our No. 1 recommendation," said Renee Bateman, health promotion coordinator in Student Health Services. "Sleep impacts physical and emotional health and improves academic performance."

Just as students must manage their schedules, apportioning enough time for sleep, class and work, universities must work around classroom availability and ensure that required or cross-listed courses are available. SRU's 8 a.m. start is typical for colleges and universities, although the University once switched to 8:30 a.m. for a few years before moving back to 8 a.m. in 2003.

"In terms of scheduling, it's really all a matter of trying to use resources to their fullest," said Jerry Chmielewski, dean of the College of Health Environment and Sciences. "In the science area we're basically locked into an 8 a.m.-2 p.m. schedule for lectures because afternoons are when our laboratories are scheduled. I like to think of it as a well-orchestrated dance to get everyone their liberal studies courses offered in a variety of flexible times and at the same time meet all the needs of the respective majors."

Decisions for class schedules are made at the dean and department chair levels, and the ability to be more flexible or for faculty to choose times may vary. For example, a business professor who knows many students are working internships or part-time jobs during the day may prefer early morning or night classes, but a professor in the sciences with a lab may not have a choice.

While many people have to collaborate to schedule classes, there is one person on campus who is the designated scheduling "traffic cop."

Christine Agostino, assistant director of scheduling and registration in Academic Records, starts the scheduling process for a fall semester nearly 11 months in advance by sending the deans guidelines to follow on how to build a schedule and rolling over the previous year's schedule to establish a base.

"There are a number of people looking at it and each of us might be looking for different things," Agostino said. "We're looking for things that might affect registration and generate an error affecting the students. There are so many other factors at play for their decisions and then (the deans or chairs) might have to pull back on what they want based on room availability."

Over the course of five months, prior to registration in April, Agostino runs reports and, at least twice, exchanges schedule drafts with the various deans' offices, all while making individual changes on the fly. She also uses scheduling software called Ad Astra that provides a glimpse of classroom space, such as seats and technology available.

With an orderly process in place, and the increase of online courses, classroom availability is not a major concern at SRU, but Agostino does notice a crunch between 9 a.m. and noon.

"We can't all teach at the same time," said Keener, who prefers to teach classes grouped together late in the day at 3:30 and 5 p.m. but will teach intro courses at noon and 1 p.m. based on the size of the room available.

Also, Keener said, everyone can't be alert at all times.

"I know that I should not assign a task to myself that requires a lot of cognitive resources at 7 p.m.," said Keener, who admits to crashing at that time each day before resuming a few more hours of activity before going to bed. "But if you look at an average adult circadian rhythm, there is an afternoon dip. There are individual differences. (My advice would be to) listen to your body and what it is saying and keep a steady routine."

By getting more sleep, you may discover the best times to be at SRU are when you're at your best.

"Try getting at least seven hours (of sleep per night) for a week and see what happens," Keener added.

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