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Sleepy students improve grades with individual schedules

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Do you have a night owl or a daytime finch or maybe a morning lark in your class? Whichever category students fall into has big implications for their performance as matching class schedules to an individual’s circadian rhythm means that each can perform at their best.

A new study from UC Berkeley and Northeastern Illinois University tracked the personal daily online activity profiles of nearly 15,000 college students as they logged into campus servers.

After sorting the students into "night owls," "daytime finches" and "morning larks" – based on their activities on days they were not in class – researchers compared their class times to their academic outcomes.

Students whose circadian rhythms were out of sync with their class schedules – say, morning larks taking afternoon courses – received lower grades because of what the reasearchers termed "social jet lag," a condition in which peak alertness times are at odds with schoolwork.

"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," said study co-lead author Aaron Schirmer, an associate professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University.

While students of all categories suffered from class-induced social jet lag, the study found that night owls were especially vulnerable, many appearing so chronically jet-lagged that they were unable to perform optimally at any time of day.

Because owls peak later and classes tend to be earlier, the mismatch hits owls the hardest.

In what is thought to be the largest-ever survey of social jet lag using real-world data, the research analysed the online activity of 14,894 Northeastern Illinois University students as they logged in and out of the campus's learning management system over two years.

50 percent of the students were taking classes before they were fully alert, and another 10 percent had already peaked by the time their classes started.

Previous studies have found that older people tend to be active earlier while young adults shift to a later sleep-wake cycle during puberty. Overall, men stay up later than women, and circadian rhythms shift with the seasons based on natural light.


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