As college students were wrapping up their academic year and preparing for final exams, Course Hero was analyzing its massive trove of college student data to help shed light on how they study. What can we learn from the study traffic patterns we see on our platform? This report is divided into three major areas:
- Study patterns: When do students study—during the day and week? (More than half of all studying takes place on just 3 days of the week!) What does this tell us about time management among college students?
- Late-night studying and sleep: The research shows that a significant amount of studying takes place after midnight. Many schools show rates well over 10% for post-midnight studying. We present those findings as well as third-party research about sleep deprivation among college students.
- Challenges facing nontraditional students: How do study behaviors differ for students at community colleges? In online programs? (Hint: Both groups are much more time challenged.) Given the push to expand access to postsecondary education—and in particular online education—do these different study patterns hold insights for those trying to reduce the barriers to graduation?
College students push hard Monday and Tuesday, then downshift by midweek
When students are in high school, they spend “80% of their academic time in class and 20% on homework,” Zulmaly Ramirez, an academic advocate at the University of South Florida, told The New York Times. That ratio is reversed in college, where just 20% of study time takes place in the classroom. With so much unstructured time, many college students struggle to adapt. One big challenge: spreading out the college workload throughout the week—even when most coursework may be due during one part of the week.
Course Hero’s research shows students push hardest on Mondays, and more than half of all studying (56%) takes place Monday through Wednesday. By Thursday, study rates begin to taper sharply. The data shows Friday study traffic is lower than Sunday traffic.
When we break the week down further, we see that most college students prefer the afternoon and evening hours to study. And it’s interesting to see how studying drops off after Wednesday.
What we found particularly fascinating, however, is the amount of studying that takes place in the late hours of the night and early morning—what we call overnight studying. While the amount of overnight studying (defined as studying between midnight and 5 a.m.) is relatively small, the level is persistent. Add to that the fact that many students also spend substantial study hours between 10 p.m. and midnight. This late-night and overnight studying points to an important public health issue to which colleges should pay attention.
The national average for overnight studying is roughly 4%–6.5% of daily studying, according to our analysis. In other words, on average, 4%–6.5% of studying within a 24-hour period takes place between midnight to 5 a.m. Adding studying that takes place between 9 p.m. and midnight brings the amount of late-night and overnight studying to 25%—and as high as 28% on Sunday nights into Monday early mornings (excluding online universities). (The studying rate differs depending on whether we count online universities, which are challenging to analyze because attendees come from multiple time zones. When we analyzed a sample of colleges that did not include any online or for-profit universities, the portion of study traffic that occurred overnight was 4%.)
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Yet what makes the “night owl” statistic interesting is the degree to which it differs based on individual universities. Course Hero examined the phenomenon in greater depth in March 2019 in a ranking called Night Owl U. We ranked US colleges by the ratio of midnight to 5 a.m. study traffic (as a percentage of overall traffic). (The analysis focused on a sample of public colleges—both 2-year and 4-year—and private, nonprofit colleges; we did not analyze online schools or any school that was located in multiple time zones. Two-year colleges are also known as community colleges. Schools were selected based on traffic volume.)
Harvard University ranked higher than any other school we examined—and outpaced other schools by a large margin. At Harvard, 19% of all study traffic takes place from midnight to 5 a.m. Compare that with two of its close neighbors: Northeastern (10%) and University of Massachusetts at Amherst (9%).
Late-night studying and sleep
A look at the research about college students and sleep deprivation
Understanding study patterns helps shed light on sleep patterns for college students—a critical issue, because lack of sleep has been shown to affect study outcomes. With so much studying occurring during what are traditionally hours of sleep, it stands to reason that some students at these schools are chronically sleep deprived—and the research bears this out.
A study of students aged 17 to 24 published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2010 found that more than 60% of college students can be categorized as poor-quality sleepers (per the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, or PSQI). And poor-quality sleepers were significantly more likely to report problems with physical and psychological health compared with good-quality sleepers.
The same study found that 25% of students report getting less than 6.5 hours of sleep per night (8 hours is the minimum recommended for young adults). More than 1 in 3 stay up until 3 a.m. at least once per week.
Furthermore, students at specific schools and within specific majors suffer from chronic sleep deprivation more than others. The Course Hero research shows that while the national average for overnight studying is roughly 4%–6.5%, many schools have rates well above 10%. And some majors are well known to push workloads to a level that all but requires overnight studying: Engineering schools are notorious for piling on coursework this way, but other majors have also documented the phenomenon. A 2017 sleep survey found that architecture majors were the most sleep deprived, followed by nursing and biochemistry majors.
For colleges grappling with a student mental health crisis, the relationship between studying, time management, and sleep is one worth exploring. The American College Health Association says in its 2018 report that 63% of college students felt “overwhelming anxiety” in the last 12 months. And more than 1 in 4 say they have felt that way in the last two weeks. As a director of counseling told The New York Times in an article about the mental health challenges on college campuses, “As we approach midterms, it feels like we’re running a crisis clinic rather than a counseling center.”
Challenges facing nontraditional students
How students at 2-year colleges and online schools differ from their 4-year peers
Finally, we wondered what we could learn from the diverse mix of students who use the Course Hero platform. We don’t believe we have all the answers, but our data may help point to unique challenges that nontraditional students face.
In the US, we hear a lot about the traditional, 4-year university experience—which includes a campus green, residential dorms, and sports teams. But this image isn’t really representative of many students’ college lives. In fact, as of the fall of 2016, nearly 6 million students were enrolled in 2-year public colleges (also called community colleges or junior colleges), making up 40% of all undergraduate students in public institutions in the US (Digest of Education Statistics 2017, Table 301.10). An additional one million were enrolled in for-profit, degree-granting institutions, many of those being online universities.
These nontraditional students face higher barriers than those taking a more traditional route, as the data bears out. The US Department of Education tracks each college’s 6-year graduation rate, which determines whether a school is delivering value to its student population. The 6-year graduation rate tallies the percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who secure a degree at a 4-year institution within 6 years. The national rate as of 2010 was 60% (in other words, 60% of students who began at a 4-year institution finished with a degree within 6 years).
The 6-year graduation rate at private, for-profit institutions in 2010 was just 26%—less than half the national average. And the 6-year graduation rate was also low at less selective schools and those with open admissions policies. (The 6-year graduation rate doesn’t apply to community colleges, which are typically not 4-year colleges.)
These figures are deeply troubling, because students often take on large amounts of college debt to attend school, and they bear this debt burden regardless of whether or not they complete their degree. In the push to make college more accessible to a wider segment of Americans, there must be a similar focus on making college degrees—and all the experience and knowledge that come with completing a 4-year degree—accessible to all.
One interesting trend related to accessibility: the explosion of online learning options. This growth is taking place at online-only schools, as well as at traditional schools expanding their online curricula. Online learning has grown so quickly—and is now so widely accepted among students—that even many traditional universities are racing to expand their online offerings.
An article from Inside Higher Ed earlier this year reported that “as many as 2 dozen” state university systems are launching large and ambitious online learning initiatives. The move is in response to the needs of these nontraditional students—who require more flexible options, as well as more cost-effective alternatives to traditional, 4-year college experiences.
Data from Course Hero shows that the pressures these nontraditional students face are markedly different than the pressures faced by traditional students. Those attending community colleges in particular show signs of time-management pressures, staying up significantly later to complete their coursework. While traffic to Course Hero in the 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. window is roughly 4%–6.5% nationally (the range is based on whether we measure traditional schools versus all schools, including online schools), the ratio of community college student traffic to the site during those hours is 8.6%—notably higher. The difference is particularly large between midnight and 1 a.m. And a large share of studying in college occurs during midday hours, but less so for community college and online students.
Part of what drives this difference is whether or not a student is working, which can impact their chances of graduating. And the key factor is not simply employment but full-time employment. Community college students are much more likely to have a full-time job than their counterparts in 4-year institutions. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 33% of students attending 2-year public schools have a full-time job, compared with 20% of those attending 4-year public schools. This is important because job hours are related to graduation rates.
Data from the US Department of Education show that while those who are in school and work fewer than 20 hours per week have a higher graduation rate than those who don’t have a job, those who work more than 20 hours have a significantly lower graduation rate. For community college students, the pressures of longer work hours and studying—which can manifest in late-night studying and sleep deprivation—are more intense than what students in traditional settings experience.
As universities expand their online college offerings to make college more accessible and affordable, what adjustments should traditional 4-year schools consider to cater to the needs of nontraditional students? How can universities increase access and affordability, but also help students with the very real pressures of balancing work, children, school, and even sleep?
Four-year universities can look to best-in-class community colleges for ideas. The tuition cost of community college is often just a fraction of tuition at a public or private college, and in recent years community colleges have been reducing costs even more through innovative educational partnerships. For example, dozens of community colleges are now partnering with tech companies to address serious skills gaps in the marketplace. Companies such as Apple, IBM, and Amazon have developed specialized online bootcamp-style programs to teach specific tech platforms or niche skills to community college students enrolled in specific majors.
And of course nontraditional students can find a vast ecosystem of online learning tools even outside of school-specific programs and curricula. Whether from an educational community such as Course Hero, or from YouTube videos and online collaboration tools, learning through online channels may appear nontraditional; however, to Gen Y and the soon-to-reach-college Gen Z students, these are simply standard ways of learning.
For more information about Course Hero’s original data series, or to request additional information, contact Grayling PR for Course Hero at [email protected].
Course Hero’s data is based on traffic to the platform during October 2018, a month least affected by school vacations. The analysis includes 2-year and 4-year colleges (both public and private/nonprofit), based on volume. We excluded online schools with a national presence, where multiple time zones would prevent us from analyzing time-of-day study patterns. The Night Owl U analysis excluded all online universities, regardless of location.