Students who perform poorly in class now have another excuse: Their schedules may be out of sync from their body biorhythms.
New research shows that body clocks have a big bearing on student performance. Depending on whether students are night owls or morning larks–and how their schedules match up–affects their GPA averages. When, for instance, night owls are forced to attend early morning lectures, they tend to do worse academically.
The study should influence how universities and colleges set out timetables, says Aaron Schirmer, an associate professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University, who coauthored the study. Where possible, they should be flexible, setting up classes to accommodate different “chronotypes.”
“Colleges and universities should offer an array of classes, so students can tailor to schedule to best fit their biological timing,” Schirmer tells Fast Company. Students should also be aware of when in the day they perform best and set their schedules accordingly, he says.
Schirmer and Benjamin Smarr, a postdoc fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed the way almost 15,000 students used Northeastern’s online learning management system, D2L, over four semesters from fall 2014 to spring 2016. First, they looked at when students logged in and worked on days when they were not in class. These patterns were proxies for the students’ natural circadian patterns–that is, the hours they chose to work. Then, they looked at how those patterns matched up with actual classroom schedules.
The difference between the timetables is called “social jet lag” in the study– the gap between a person’s ideal schedule and a timetable-directed one. The bigger the social jet lag the worse students did on average, the researchers say. Only about 40% of students had schedules matching up with their biological clocks.
Schirmer concedes that off-class days are only roughly representative of student biorhythms. It could be, for example, that students have other commitments–like a job or looking after a parent–making them work certain hours. But the data from the learning system does have the benefit of being cheap and detailed, allowing for broad patterns to be observed.
Scientists who study bio-clocks (chronobiologists) have long argued that society should be more flexible in its timing. Younger people tend to be awake later in the day than older people, for example. Some kids do better in early morning exams, some do better later in the day, research shows. Making everyone start at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. might be disadvantageous, and unfair, to many people who only come on strong in midmorning and in the afternoon.