University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill;
Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; and
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University
Students often complain that they can’t get enough sleep because they have too much work to do (Hershner and Chervin 2014). Given the importance of sleep, particularly with respect to learning (Doyle and Zakrajsek 2013), this self-reported lack of sleep has long been a concern to me. I thought students simply needed to manage their time better and that, as a faculty member, I didn’t have control over when students choose to sleep. For all the years I have been teaching, it hadn’t really occurred to me that the time at which I make assignments due might have an impact on how late students stay up to complete the assigned work. I knew students frequently wait until the last minute to complete work, but I just hadn’t thought of how my assigned times, in combination with procrastination, creates predictable sleeping (or lack of sleeping) patterns.
I now have evidence that changing the time at which an assignment is due has the potential for benefitting students by promoting healthier sleeping patterns. In Fall, 2016, I taught a first-year honors seminar with 24 students. Following my customary practice, the papers were due at 9 AM in the morning, just prior to the start of class at 9:30 AM. Because my students submitted their assignments through Sakai, each of the four two-page papers I assigned came with a timestamp that allowed me to see exactly when the papers were submitted.
Across the four assignments, 71% were turned in after midnight. Some students apparently stayed up most of the night to complete their assignments. For the third paper, seven assignments came in between midnight and 2 AM and three came in between 2 AM and 5 AM! For the final paper that semester, eight assignments were submitted between 2 AM and 5 AM. I was stunned and pondered whether changing the time the papers were due might have an impact on when the assignments were completed, and potentially allow for students to get to sleep earlier.
In Fall 2017, for the same first-year honor seminar course with 24 students, I tried a simple modification: papers were “due” at 9 PM the night before, but “accepted” until 9 AM the next morning. Papers that came in after the “time due” of 9 PM, but before 9 AM were not penalized. Therefore, students could turn in papers at the same time of day as the previous semester but were encouraged to turn them in at 9 PM the night prior.
The difference between the two semesters was dramatic. Across the four papers, only 15% of the papers came in after midnight. The 15% was inflated because on the fourth paper, six of the students chose to review their papers once more before turning them in, and so they came in between 8 AM and 9 AM, not during the midnight hours. For the first three papers, 85% of the papers, on average, were turned in by 9 PM the night before.
With this simple modification in the due dates and times, students appeared to have stopped “maniacal binging” (Boice 2000), completed their work well before midnight, and at least had a shot at a good night’s sleep. Using a simple tactic of signaling that papers were “due” at 9 PM, I gave the students a deadline that they appeared to have used in planning how they allocated their time. They didn’t want to be “late,” even though “late” carried no penalty. What is particularly attractive about this technique is that it works without the imposition of any penalties for “late” assignments. Following Lowman’s (2000) lead, I behave as if there will no such a thing as a “late” assignment and the students make my words come true. In support of this concept, no students even asked me if there was a penalty for turning in papers after 9 PM and before 9 AM.
I now use this technique of having all assignments due in the evening rather than in the morning, whether they are graded or just checked off when submitted. Having assignments due the night before not only gives students the opportunity for a good night’s sleep but also, if I so desire, gives me an opportunity to review their work and to make modifications in my lesson plan, if the submitted papers reveal any misunderstandings that I need to clarify. Perhaps, as faculty, we have more influence on our students’ behaviors than we typically realize.
The students in this course were in a first-year honors course at a selective university. How might the results be different at different institutions and for students at different academic ranks? The author noted he was surprised by the results. How do you think your students would respond to a process such as this?
Describe at least three other ways in which a typical college/university college/university assignment might impact the health of an average student. What adjustments could you make as faculty member that might result in healthier behaviors by your students?
Explain the kinds of conversations you might have with your students about sleep habits and the impact of sleep (or lack thereof) on academic performance. How might you collect data about the impact of students being more aware of the impact of poor sleep behaviors on their own academic performance?
Boice, Robert. 2000. Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Doyle, Terry and Todd Zakrajsek. 2013. The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Hershner, Shelley D. and Ronald D. Chervin. 2014. "Causes and Consequences of Sleepiness among College Students." Nature and Science of Sleep 6:73-84. doi: 10.2147/NSS.S62907.
Lowman, Joesph. 2000. Mastering the Techniques of College Teaching, 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.