healthHealth and Medicine

Students Are Out Of Sync With The School Day And It's Badly Affecting Their Grades, According To A New Study


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Who speaks for night owls? kagera/Shutterstock

A new study, published in Scientific Reports, has made an interesting correlation between our biological clocks and the grades we achieve at school. After tracking the personal daily online activities of 14,894 college students between 2014 and 2016, they’ve found that students whose internal hourglasses were out of sync with their class times received lower grades than those who were more closely matched up.

Clearly, this suggests that grades overall would improve across the board if classes could somehow be matched up to students’ own circadian rhythms.


The team, from the University of California, Berkeley, and Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), categorized these students into “night owls”, “morning larks”, and “daytime finches” – those not biased toward very early or late waking or sleeping hours. Although some managed to live in-sync lives, most experienced so-called social jet lag (SJL) to some degree.

“A majority of students experience more than 30 minutes of SJL on average,” the study notes.

In total, around 40 percent of the students, all from NEIU, were biologically in-sync with their classes, meaning their peak alertness coincided with their education. In contrast, 10 percent peaked before their classes started and 50 percent peaked afterward.

Overall, the greater the SJL, the more significant the decrease in academic performance that was observed, “especially in people with later apparent chronotypes.” Night owls, then, were affected the most, which makes sense – young adults are generally more biologically (and socially) inclined to sleep later and wake later.


A night owl with a +6 hour SJL, for example, had a GPA of just under 2.8. Someone with no SJL averaged just over a 3.2 GPA. Although the correlation with GPA scores was fairly strong for night owls, it was far weaker for morning larks, so some uncertainty remains.

As many are increasingly aware, our internal clocks are nothing like the ones you have on your phone or on the wall. They can’t simply be altered at will, and everyone has a somewhat pre-set rhythm, one influenced by our genes. If we try to, or are forced to, live according to an artificially determined tick-tock of the clock, then our body will suffer.

This results in SJL for billions of people around the world, to varying degrees. Sleep deprivation to any degree affects, among other physiological things, our cognitive abilities, so this study’s findings really aren’t that surprising at all.

Yes, grades are not solely determined by your sleep cycle; intelligence, effort, and so on play major, arguably more important roles too. Nevertheless, this is a correlation worth talking about, seeing as it’s part of a conversation more than a century in the making.


Without a doubt, it’s time society re-examined how it deals with work and education. Just take the 8-hour working day, largely based on a 9-to-5-style of working hours. This first emerged out of the Industrial Revolution, where incredibly long working days, kept that way to maximize output, were advised to be shortened to a far more sustainable 8 hours per day.

This was based on a campaign slogan, one that was implemented in 1914 by the Ford Motor Company. Others followed suit once they realized this led to better worker efficiency, and it was quickly adopted elsewhere. The problem is that this assumes everyone’s internal clocks are the same, which isn’t the case – so this clearly benefits those who aren’t early birds or night owls.

It’s clear that the clash between society’s traditions of time, work, and education don’t match up to what we are increasingly learning about our biological clocks. Evidence is mounting that a better, healthier world would come about with the individualization of education and employment.


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