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Poor grades more likely when schedules are out of sync with students’ biological clocks, study finds

Poor grades more likely when schedules are out of sync
We should be encouraging educational institutions to schedule class times to match the biological rhythms of students, rather than expecting students to attend classes socially jetlagged.

Parents, teachers and other adults need to stop blaming and berating students for having so much trouble getting up in the morning to get to school or other activities.

Study after study has found that many young people’s natural circadian “clocks” — their daily internal biological rhythms, over which they have little control — can make it extremely difficult for them to be alert in the morning.

And, no, it’s not just a matter of them staying up too late. Teenagers and young adults tend to have significantly later sleep-wake cycles than older people.

A new study, published last week in the journal Scientific Reports, underscores why it’s important to understand those cycles. It found that when college students’ biological rhythms are out of sync with their classroom schedules, their grades are likely to suffer.

We should be encouraging educational institutions to schedule class times to match the biological rhythms of students, rather than expecting students to attend classes socially jetlagged, conclude the study’s co-authors.

Owls, finches and larks

For the study, Benjamin L. Smarr, a postdoctoral student from the University of California, Berkeley, and Aaron Schirmer, an associate professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University, tracked two years of daily online activity on a campus server for about 15,000 college students. The days and times of the students’ classes were also noted. 

Based on their activity on the days when they didn’t have classes (when they could “sleep in,” if they wanted to), the students were divided into three different so-called chronotypes: “night owls,” “daytime finches” and “morning larks.”

Smarr and Schirmer then compared the students’ class times with their academic performance. They found that although many of the students — about 40 percent — had a class schedule that was in sync with their biological rhythms, most of the students experienced some degree of social jetlag. About 50 percent were in classrooms before their bodies and brains were fully alert, and about 10 percent were in classrooms after their peak alertness of the day had passed.  

A majority of the students experienced about 30 minutes of social jetlag, on average, the study found. 

Those findings were not all that surprising. But the data also suggested that being out-of-sync biologically took a toll academically. Students whose class schedules were not in alignment with their biological rhythms tended to receive poorer grades — and the greater the social jetlag, the stronger the association.

Student night owls were particularly vulnerable. Night owls with six or more hours of social jetlag, for example, had an average GPA of just under 2.8. That compared with an average GPA of 3.2 for students with no social jetlag.

“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 in a released statement.

A need for individualized education

The study was large and used real-world data (instead of self-reported data) to determine the circadian activity patterns of its participants, but it was also observational. That means its findings demonstrate only a correlation between out-of-sync class schedules and poorer grades, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

But the findings are provocative nevertheless, particularly since social jetlag is emerging as an important marker for health outcomes. It’s been associated not only with increased sleepiness and fatigue, but also with poorer physical and mental health.

All of us should be taking note of the role that chronotype plays in our daily lives  — starting, perhaps, with our children. 

“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,” Smarr said.

FMI: The study can be read in full on Psychological Science’s website.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/02/2018 - 10:43 am.

    We should…

    …but I don’t think it will happen any time soon, at least, not in urban and suburban districts. My last decade in the classroom featured an “A Period” class running from 7:20am to 8:05am – we started 45 minutes earlier than the “regular” school day, A morning person myself, with a low-energy period in mid-to-late afternoon, I frankly liked the schedule, but that wasn’t true for everyone. Some kids thrived on it, some were only mentally with us part of the time, and a few were obviously something other than “morning larks.”

    School schedules are largely a reflection of parental work schedules. An awful lot of households have working parents with children in school, and catering to substantially different school schedules will make for a lot of additional parental stress, not to mention unhappy employers.

    In my own family’s case, starting my grandson’s 1st grade glass at 7:30am (He goes to be early, and is usually awake and ready to go at 5:30am) and my granddaughter’s 4th grade class at 9:00am (she’s the one who likes to sleep in) will create chaos in a household where both parents have jobs with start and end times that don’t match up well with that kind of school schedule.

    I’m on board with the research cited, which matches my classroom experience and observation rather well, but I’m skeptical that employers are going to be willing to let the children of their employees be the drivers of the workday schedule. Unless/until that happens, I think the society at large will choose expediency. Some local areas or districts may do some experimenting, but I’ll be surprised if there are state-wide changes of this magnitude anywhere in the country.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/02/2018 - 09:52 pm.

    One of the arguments against later start times that I hear goes like this: Some adults’ work days start at 6:00AM or 7:00AM, so those kids just have to toughen up and prepare themselves for the real world.

    I spent three years working both clerical and industrial temp jobs, and there was a definite class element in work schedules. Industrial jobs started at 6:00 or 7:00AM, offered as little as 20 minutes for lunch, and as little as one 10-minute break. Yes, that was the schedule in one factory: start at 7:00AM, a 10-minute break at 9:00, lunch from 11:00 to 11:20, and then work straight through till 3:30PM. Another made us clock out for our two 10-minute breaks and 20-minute lunches. The maximum lunch period in the industrial jobs was 30 minutes.

    In contrast, the white collar jobs started at 8:30 or 9:00, invariably provided an hour for lunch, allowed people to leave their desks to use the bathroom or get a beverage at will, and ended at 4:30 or 5:00.

    This contrast could be found even within the same company in the same building. The people on the factory floor were there at 7:00, but the clerical staff came in much later. It was the first time I really noticed the way different social classes are treated.

    So early school schedules for teenagers are meant to prepare them for factory jobs?

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