It may be time to tailor students’ class schedules to their natural biological rhythms, according to a new study.
Researchers found that students whose circadian rhythms were out of sync with their class schedules — for instance, night owls taking early morning courses — got lower grades due to “social jet lag;” their peak alertness times were at odds with work, school, or other demands.
For the study, investigators from the University of California Berkeley and Northeastern Illinois University tracked the personal daily online activity profiles of nearly 15,000 college students as they logged into campus servers.
After sorting the students into “night owls,” “daytime finches” and “morning larks”—based on their activities on days they were not in class — researchers compared their class times to their academic outcomes.
“We found that the majority of students were being jet-lagged by their class times, which correlated very strongly with decreased academic performance,” said study co-lead author Dr. Benjamin Smarr, a postdoctoral fellow who studies circadian rhythm disruptions in the lab of UC Berkeley psychology professor Dr. Lance Kriegsfeld.
In addition to learning deficits, social jet lag has been tied to obesity and excessive alcohol and tobacco use, he noted.
The study also found that if a student can structure a consistent schedule where class days resemble non-class days, they are more likely to achieve academic success, according to study co-lead author Dr. Aaron Schirmer, an associate professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University.
When the researchers looked at how larks, finches, and owls scheduled their classes during four semesters from 2014 to 2016, they found that about 40 percent were mostly biologically in sync with their class times. As a result, they performed better in class and earned higher GPAs.
However, 50 percent of the students were taking classes before they were fully alert, and another 10 percent had already peaked by the time their classes started.
While students in all categories suffered from class-induced jet lag, the study found that night owls were especially vulnerable, many appearing so chronically jet-lagged that they were unable to perform optimally at any time of day.
But it’s not as simple as students just staying up too late, according to Smarr.
“Because owls are later and classes tend to be earlier, this mismatch hits owls the hardest, but we see larks and finches taking later classes and also suffering from the mismatch,” said Smarr. “Different people really do have biologically diverse timing, so there isn’t a one-time-fits-all solution for education.”
The results suggest that “rather than admonish late students to go to bed earlier, in conflict with their biological rhythms, we should work to individualize education so that learning and classes are structured to take advantage of knowing what time of day a given student will be most capable of learning,” he added.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.