Tuesday, July 26, 2011

 

8 a.m. Classes

This piece in IHE last week set off quite the firestorm. It’s about the felt futility of teaching the dreaded 8 a.m. class. I would have written it differently, but it raised a valid issue.

Been there, done that. Hated it. And it raises one of those questions for which nobody has a great answer.

If the Feds would back off long enough to let our Institutional Research staff catch its collective breath on “compliance” reporting and actually do some inquiry-driven stuff, I’d love to see the numbers on student success rates in classes at different times of day. Is the 8 a.m. timeslot actually an attrition machine, or does it just feel like one? (Even if the first-blush numbers were awful, we’d still have to sort out the issue of self-selection. Typically, the early-morning sections fill last, meaning they’re often the only options left for late registrants. We know that late registrants have higher drop/fail rates than students who sign up early. So do worse numbers at 8 a.m. reflect the timeslot itself, or the higher proportion of late registrants?)

In my teaching days, I remember the bleary faces and the late arrivals at 8. It was bad enough at Flagship State, where Friday 8 a.m. classes were populated mostly by the hungover. (Thursday night was the big party night, since so many students went home for the weekend.) At Proprietary U, it was just empty. Out of a class of twenty-five, I’d usually have three to five students present at 8. We’d hit the halfway point around 8:20, and finally get a non-embarrassing turnout around 8:45. Students weren’t even apologetic; they seemed to take the timeslot as an affront, and they responded accordingly.

Yes, many jobs start at 8, but it’s one thing to show up, and quite another to be alert and ready to learn. That’s especially true for folks who are still on the teenage circadian clock, which starts and ends a couple of hours later than for the rest of us. Even the relatively well-behaved and self-disciplined ones are at a biological disadvantage.

I remember reading a few years ago that a couple of forward-thinking high schools experimented with starting and ending the school day an hour later. It causes some issues with after-school sports, but it did wonders for test scores, absenteeism, student behavior, and (eventually) faculty morale. (Apparently, teaching students who aren’t tired and cranky makes for happier teachers. Who woulda thunk it?) It certainly sounded right to me, and it seems like one of those relatively easy reforms that we could choose to enact just by choosing to enact it. Leave the sunrise classes to the little kids, since they’re up at dark o’clock anyway, and give the teenagers a fighting chance to get some sleep.

The major issue with abolishing 8:00 classes, obviously, is capacity. If we didn’t start until, say, 9, we’d have to squeeze the extra sections into classrooms that are already stuffed at prime time. (Alternately, we could replace them with online classes, but that isn’t yet an option for everyone.) But it’s fair to ask just how much the capacity argument applies if real learning isn’t really going on at that hour.

Wise and worldly readers, have you had good experiences with 8 a.m. classes? Does anybody know of any useful empirical studies done at the college level of the effects of 8 a.m. classes? Is this basically solvable with caffeine and nagging, or are we shooting ourselves in the collective foot here?



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