Science & Technology

College students’ biological clocks clash with their class schedules

In a study published by the Northeastern Illinois University and University of California, Berkeley on March 29, researchers conducted studies on nearly 15,000 college students in order to see whether their natural circadian rhythms clashed with their sleep schedules and the kind of effect this had on student awareness and academic success.

The aptly named “3.4 million real-world learning management system logins reveal the majority of students experience social jet lag correlated with decreased performance” study published by the Scientific Reports journal tracked the login times of 14,894 Northeastern Illinois students for almost two years in order to categorize these students as “night owls,” “morning larks” or “daytime finches.”

The categorization was based on what time each student felt the most alert and awake on days that they did not have class, since individual biological rhythms create a different internal clock for every person.

Many standard class hours range from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., a time span which is considered a few hours too early for owls and finches, but the end is a few hours too late for larks.

In any situation, when a student took classes that did not fit with the time they were most alert, the student experienced what is known as social jet lag.

“40.4% of students are synchronized within one half hour of their class day phase,” the study states, “while 49.2% of individuals advanced, and 10.4% delayed their phases on class days by at least a half hour.” When individuals were advanced between phases, their classes were held earlier than the time of the day when they were at the peak of their attentiveness. On the other hand, a delay between phases meant that the individuals had classes after their peak had passed.

The researchers hypothesized that greater discrepancies between students’ social jet lag would correlate with worse academic performance and an overall
lower GPA.

Their research validated this hypothesis. All three groups of students tended to receive higher grades later in the day rather than in the early morning, but night owls had the biggest disadvantage and the tendency to perform worse than morning larks or daytime finches regardless of the time
of day.

The performance of the night owls revealed one of the many caveats to the study. Even if this group of students took classes in the evening, academic performance did not improve significantly.

The researchers predict that this is due to the day-to-day instability of a college student’s schedule, in which one may have numerous classes one day and no classes the next. In contrast, high school students usually have the same schedule every single weekday, which allows their biological rhythms to sync with their daily routines more. These students are known to perform better in their later classes if they are considered night owls. However, the study acknowledges that more research needs to be done to fully confirm these results.

The Scientific Reports study encourages students to amend their class schedules so that their days in school are similar to their days outside of class. Benjamin Smarr, who is one of the lead authors of the study and studies circadian rhythm disruption at Berkeley, encourages 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.”

While having classes too early in the day is a common complaint of students all around the world, this new data validates how they feel and supports the synchronization of class schedules with a student’s peak performance.The modern student is overloaded with schoolwork, heavy course loads and commitments such as internships and extracurricular activities.

Identifying when one is most alert and vigilant during the day and doing one’s most intensive work during that period will lead to academic success. It also decrease rates of obesity and the use of substances like tobacco and alcohol, as social jet lag is also linked to these conditions.

Diana Shishkina

Diana Shishkina

Diana intends to pursue a double major in Political Science and Journalism. She enjoys writing, dancing, drinking coffee, studying law and napping.
Diana Shishkina
April 16, 2018

About Author

Diana Shishkina Diana intends to pursue a double major in Political Science and Journalism. She enjoys writing, dancing, drinking coffee, studying law and napping.


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