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.