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Online learning doesn’t improve student sleep habits, research suggests

May 06, 2021
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New research from Simon Fraser University suggests that students learning remotely become night owls but do not sleep more despite the time saved commuting, working or attending social events. 

The study, led by psychology professor Ralph Mistlberger, Andrea Smit and Myriam Juda, at SFU’s Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Lab, compared self-reported data on sleep habits from 80 students enrolled in a 2020 summer session course at SFU with data collected from 450 students enrolled in the same course during previous summer semesters. The study results were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“There is a widespread belief among sleep researchers that many people, especially young adults, regularly obtain insufficient sleep due to work, school, and social activities,” says Mistlberger. “The move toward remote work and school during COVID-19 has provided a novel opportunity to test this belief.”

The student participants kept daily sleep diaries over a period of two-to-eight weeks, completed questionnaires and provided written reports. Fitbit sleep tracker data was collected from a subsample of participants. 

The team found that students learning remotely in the summer 2020 session went to bed an average of 30 minutes later than pre-pandemic students. They slept less efficiently, less at night and more during the day, but did not sleep more overall despite having no early classes and 44 per cent fewer work days compared to students in previous semesters.

 “One very consistent finding is a collective delay of sleep timing - people go to bed and wake up later,” says Mistlberger. “Not surprisingly, there is also a marked reduction in natural light exposure, especially early in the day. The lack of change in sleep duration was a bit of a surprise, as it goes against the assumption that young adults would sleep more if they had the time.” 

Self-described night owls were more likely to report a greater positive impact on their sleep, getting to sleep in, instead of waking up early for that morning class, while morning types were more likely to report a negative response to sleeping later than usual. 

Sleep plays an important role in immune functioning and mental health, which is why good sleep habits are crucial. 

“My advice for students and anybody working from home is to try to get outside and be active early in the day because the morning light helps stabilize your circadian sleep-wake cycle – this should improve your sleep, and allow you to feel more rested and energized during the day,” says Mistlberger. 

AVAILABLE SFU EXPERT

RALPH MISTLBERGER, professor, psychology
mistlber@sfu.ca

CONTACT 

MELISSA SHAW, SFU  Communications & Marketing 
236.880.3297 | melissa_shaw@sfu.ca

Simon Fraser University 
Communications & Marketing | SFU Media Experts Directory 
778.782.3210

ABOUT SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY

As Canada’s engaged university, SFU works with communities, organizations and partners to create, share and embrace knowledge that improves life and generates real change. We deliver a world-class education with lifelong value that shapes change-makers, visionaries and problem-solvers. We connect research and innovation to entrepreneurship and industry to deliver sustainable, relevant solutions to today’s problems. With campuses in British Columbia’s three largest cities—Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey—SFU has eight faculties that deliver 193 undergraduate degree programs and 127 graduate degree programs to more than 37,000 students. The university now boasts more than 165,000 alumni residing in 143 countries.