Fall and Winter Blues…

by Catherine Hillman on December 10, 2014


Fall quarter is supposed to be a time of fresh beginnings, cooler weather (more amenable to deep sleep) and new focus for the school year… so why do I feel like hiding at home on the couch and binge-watching Netflix until the New Year?  The “Back to School” excitement of September mocks my disorderly desktop, and students look a little less like crisp fresh learners, and more like the Walking Dead. No offense, my friends. But it’s true.

Events thrust upon us may have something to do with it. We have been through a time change, elections, heartbreaking national news, a disruptive food binge (from which most of us have probably yet to recover) and the gnawing realization that more holidays are just around the corner.

But perhaps there is even more to this collective weariness than our wristwatches, politicians and social struggles or obligations. Species less complicated than ours are packing up their bags and moving to sunny locations, or settling in for a long nap with their Netflix queues ready. Trees lose their interest in holding on to leaves, and perennials ditch their petals and pull their energy underground into the floral equivalent of watching the NCAA Football playoffs and eating leftover turkey sandwiches. Nature is smart that way, and doesn’t often put a blooming presentation on the calendar after the first big frost of the season.

I wondered if our annual (seasonal) circadian rhythms might wreak havoc on our learning processes, and as any good academic would, I turned to Dr. Google for answers, and was not disappointed: it turns out there is a lot of connection between circadian rhythms, mood and learning. When those rhythms are disrupted, perkiness, learning and memory go out the window. You can read about the groundbreaking study on learning (which involves terribly cute Siberian Hamsters) here.

In addition, Dr. Google informed me that “Clinical research has found higher prevalence of depressive anxiety during winter at more northern latitudes. Although this was originally attributed to insufficient exposure to light, more recent research on seasonal mood variation supports the “phase-shift hypothesis,” which points to the importance of the timing of the dawn signal to synchronize the circadian pacemaker“.

And according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, “Circadian rhythms are produced by natural factors within the body, but they are also affected by signals from the environment. Light is the main cue influencing circadian rhythms, turning on or turning off genes that control an organism’s internal clocks… Circadian rhythms can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions. They have been linked to various sleep disorders, such as insomnia. Abnormal circadian rhythms have also been associated with obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.” (source)

Are these symptoms the bane of the privileged and tony western world? As it turns out, we are not alone in feeling the fall blues: in a massive global research project, researchers studied the tweets of human tweeters from around the world, set out to discover what Twitter had to say about global circadian rhythms by day, and by season. The researchers needed more than 140 characters to state their results, so they  published their findings in sciencemag.org here.

In short, “We found that individuals awaken in a good mood that deteriorates as the day progresses—which is consistent with the effects of sleep and circadian rhythm—and that seasonal change in baseline positive affect varies with change in day length. People are happier on weekends, but the morning peak in positive affect is delayed by 2 hours, which suggests that people awaken later on weekends.” This is especially disturbing to me as a parent, because I have been nagging my son to stop sleeping in so much, and now he has research to back up his position.

The University of Michigan publishes an astonishing guide for parents – a month-by-month “What to expect” document that delves into the lives of a college student, and particularly a first time student. The guide is here and I read it with much interest as I try to determine why my son, a second-year college student who lives at home, is insisting on sleeping in and is turning slowly into a zombified version of himself. I may be particularly frustrated due to the pile of unwashed dishes on the counter, but I see this trend in my own students as well.

So: How do we foster learning during shorter daylight hours when our temperaments (and learning capacity) is set to “Bah Humbug”? Beyond scheduling classes so students can sleep in, here are a few ideas you can implement now, or plan on implementing for winter when the blues will hit your students the hardest:

  1. Put course materials at their digital fingertips. The best time of day for our students to learn may not be when they are physically sitting in class. Putting our syllabi, some course content, a discussion board for class questions, and perhaps even a tally of student grades into a PolyLearn shell will do wonders for their ability to gage where they are at in class, review critical content, or feel like they can ask a question without nudging you with an email.
  2. Take breaks often. Sitting in a chair when one is tired or unmotivated can result in sleepy behavior. Stand. Jump. Dance. Help your students move. We tend to overlook our kinesthetic learners, but in a Learn By Doing environment, we should certainly incorporate Doing.
  3. Provide collaborative assignments. Students are not only down, but many are feeling lonely, particularly after spending the holidays surrounded by warmth, family, and their childhood cocoon that they have recently left. This is the time to engage with their peers and create new bonds, and providing this opportunity in class is a positive thing.
  4. Engage. Talk to your students. If they are feeling very blue, or they are struggling too much, know what resources we have on campus, and encourage your struggling students to find those resources. The Cal Poly Health & Counseling Site can help tremendously. It does not cost a lot to empathize with our students, and to tell them they can make it. “You can do this. You have it in you. You’re almost there!”

Come to think of it, we all need a little help…

Do you have a suggestion to add to my list? I would love to hear about it in a comment!

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