By Meenu Johnkutty ‘21
Placing a night owl in an 8 A.M. lecture may explain tiredness and result in a lack of attentiveness during class, but can it justify poor grades? The University of California-Berkeley recently published research that provides compelling evidence pointing to the consequences of scheduling classes out of sync with biological rhythms. The researchers, led by Dr. Benjamin Smarr and Dr. Aaron Schirmer, termed the disjointness between class times and biological peak alertness as “social jet lag” (“SJL” for short).
To conduct their analyses, the research team gathered a population of 15,000 students at Northeastern Illinois University. First, the researchers monitored the times of student logins into learning management systems across four semesters; they noted students’ login times of non-school days off as well. Using the collected data, the team built a general circadian profile for the students and grouped students into three separate categories: “night owls,” “daytime finches,” and “morning larks.” Those students who were likely to be more alert earlier than the mean alertness time were grouped as “larks,” while those students who fell one standard deviation below the mean alertness time were grouped as “owls.” Those students who fell within the two standard deviations were grouped as “finches.”
After assigning labels to the students, the researchers then matched class times with the general circadian profiles of the students. Over 50% of students were taking classes before they were fully alert, while another 10% had already peaked by the time their classes started. Only 40% of the students were taking classes at times that suited their circadian profile. Upon discovering that the majority of students were taking classes at times misaligned with their biological clocks, the researchers suggested that this misalignment also played a role in poor academic performance.
The consequences of social jet lag are tremendous. Apart from obvious academic drawbacks, SJL has also been tied to obesity and excessive alcohol and tobacco use. Instead of pressuring night owls to conform to a morning schedule and morning larks to an evening schedule, universities should consider giving students more freedom in class scheduling so as to maximize the academic performance of larks, finches, and owls alike.
- B. Smarr, A. Schirmer, 3.4 million real-world learning management system logins reveal the majority of students experience social jet lag correlated with decreased performance. Scientific Reports 8, (2018). doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-23044-8.
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