Remote learning has not led to better sleep for students, researchers say

BURNABY, British Columbia — The average high school or college student usually has a fairly packed schedule. Between commuting to class, sitting in class, after school activities, and some semblance of a social life, there isn’t much time for sleep. One would think that the transition to remote learning would provide students with some much needed extra sleep, but researchers from Simon Fraser University report students taking their classes online now aren’t catching up on sleep. Instead, that extra time is being spent burning the midnight oil.

To reach these conclusions, study authors compared collected sleep habit data from 80 local students enrolled in a 2020 summer session course at SFU with similar information collected among 450 students enrolled in the same course in earlier years.

“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 study co-leader and psychology professor Ralph Mistlberger in a university release. “The move toward remote work and school during COVID-19 has provided a novel opportunity to test this belief.”

Each participant kept a sleep diary for two to eight weeks and also filled out various surveys and written reports. Some participants even agreed to wear a sleep tracker.

Night owls handle remote learning better?

All that investigating revealed that students learning remotely during the pandemic tended to go to bed a half hour later than earlier semesters. Sleep was also overall less efficient during remote learning, with students sleeping more during the day and staying awake at night. Importantly, despite not having to commute to any morning classes and having 44 percent fewer work days than a normal semester, students still didn’t report sleeping more than usual.

“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.”

Generally, night owls appear to have adapted more easily to remote learning. This group tends to enjoy sleeping in more, while early birds were “more likely to report a negative response to sleeping later than usual.”

“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,” Mistlberger concludes.

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.