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What's 'social jet lag'? How class time can determine what grade you get, study finds

Students who take a class that doesn’t match up with their biological clock are more likely to get a lower grade, according to a study of college students from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Northeastern Illinois University. It was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Students who take a class that doesn’t match up with their biological clock are more likely to get a lower grade, according to a study of college students from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Northeastern Illinois University. It was published in the journal Scientific Reports. D Sharon Pruitt

There are a few factors that determine how well students do in a class, including the quality of their teacher, how often they study and the notes they take during lectures.

You can add the time of their class to that list, according to a study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Northeastern Illinois University. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study found that college students who took a class that didn’t line up with their biological clock were more likely to get a lower grade than students who did.

Researchers put 14,894 students at Northeastern Illinois University into three groups — “night owls,” “morning larks” and “daytime finches” — based on their activity on the college’s learning management system during non-class days over the span of two years.

That information helped researchers determine the times of the day students were naturally awake, the study says, and they could compare that data with the times of day the subjects had a class to attend.

It turned out that “social jet lag” — defined as the conflict between a person’s natural biological clock and external pressures, like a 9 a.m. class — proved to be a determining factor in how well a student performed in class, the study says. “Daytime finches” didn’t perform that well during a nighttime class, while an early lecture and good grades didn’t fly with the “night owls.”

Those who took a class at times that matched their assigned group had a higher GPA, the study found.

Our body’s circadian clock determines the best times for eating, sleeping, working out and doing other daily activities. What are key times as we spin through 24 hours?

So what’s the key for picking out the perfect class time?

Aaron Schirmer, an associate professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University and study co-author, has a tip for you.

“Our research indicates that if a student can structure a consistent schedule in which class days resemble non-class days, they are more likely to achieve academic success,” he said in a press release.

The “social jet lag” doesn’t seem to affect everyone equally, however. The study found that “night owls” are actually hit hardest when taking a class that falls outside of their natural rhythm.

Benjamin Smarr, study co-author and postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, has a theory for why that happens.

“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,” he said in another press release. “Different people really do have biologically diverse timing, so there isn’t a one-time-fits-all solution for education.”

A lot of students are struggling with classes that come at a bad time for them, the study suggests. Just 40 percent of students took classes that matched their biological clock, the researchers found, while 50 percent had classes before they could completely concentrate.

But Smarr said he doesn’t blame college students for going to bed later, saying that “staying up late in college doesn’t make you a party animal or lazy student.”

There’s a biological reason for that happening, he argued.

“Circadian clocks get later in puberty, and so people in their teens and early 20s tend to be more owlish,” Smarr said. “What we see here is that in a large, diverse population, when class times don’t accommodate that lateness, the quality of the education suffers, and this impacts the majority of students at the university.”

There are other unsavory effects of “social jet lag,” the researchers said, like a higher rate of smoking and obesity.

That’s just another reason to examine how universities can accommodate their students in additional studies, the researchers wrote.

“The benefits to individuals and societies stemming from enhancing education by enabling individuals to take advantage of their own biological rhythms are surely substantial.”

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