The early bird does not catch the worm

By Rachel Chiu

During the final week before NTU’s Hall Olympiad Closing Ceremony (HOCC), late night dance practices saw me returning to hall at about 3am. Twice, I only got back at 6am after a whole night — and morning — of rehearsals.

This meant I was often too tired to attend morning lectures, and even those I did attend seemed like a blur to me. Not surprisingly, my academic performance dipped. If only all my classes were held in the afternoon, I thought.

The science of sleep

Most people think that sleeping early, achieved by good discipline and time management, is the solution to lethargy in early classes.

But it might be worthwhile to explore other reasons why students struggle to keep awake in the mornings. Even though some of us are resigned to our bad reputation of being “lazy”, research shows that there is more to this than meets the eye.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness, in which high levels result in sleepiness. In a 2016 study, University of Maryland Professor Nolan Pope found that adult melatonin secretion typically begins at about 9pm. During this process, melatonin levels remain high for 12 hours, after which its effects start to wane. This might explain why we only feel more energetic after a certain amount of rest.

Findings by a 2011 study by social technology researcher Laura Dabbish also found that people are more likely to be distracted in the morning, regaining their focus only later on in the day.

These findings are echoed by another study done in 2017 by the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which found that 12 per cent more high school students in England performed well in national examinations in classes that started later. Researchers say the findings are applicable to different countries as well.

Changes to consider

While some may argue that afternoon classes are only for those with poor time management, these studies show that perhaps we are just biologically wired to function better later in the day.  

Planning for the most productive times for learning can be a solution to the unproductivity that some students face. Starting all classes after a certain timing may be a logistical nightmare, but it is worth working something out.An attentive class in the afternoon or a morning class with groggy faces? I’m sure lecturers would be more thrilled to see the former in their classrooms.