New Study Explores Relationship Between Circadian Rhythm in Young Adults and Academic Performance

By Nicole Loranger

A recent study performed by students at the University of California at Berkeley and the Northeastern Illinois University provides new evidence for the diversity of circadian rhythms among young adults and how one’s sleep cycle can affect their academic performance. Described as the “largest-ever” survey of its kind, the experiment focused on what it calls “social jet lag,” or the lack of overlap between one’s peak alertness and the time of day when most academic, occupational, or other demands must be met.

The study involved a sample size of 15,000 students from NIU, and began with monitoring their activity patterns on non-class days to sort their natural circadian rhythm into one of three categories: night owls, early birds, and day finches. The researchers then tracked how students in each group arranged their course schedules over the course of four semesters, and used this data to draw conclusions about the correlation between sleep pattern and GPA. They found that about 40% of the student participants were able to choose classes that aligned with their peak alertness, which minimized social jetlag and allowed them to perform better in class. 50%, however, were taking classes before peak alertness, and 10% were taking classes after their peak alertness, indicating the prevalence of the issue. According to Aaron Smarr, an Associate Professor at NIU, the fact that most classes happen during the day means that those are who function better at night are especially hit hard by social jetlag. "Different people really do have biologically diverse timing,” insists Smarr, “so there isn't a one-time-fits-all solution for education."

While social jetlag is a concern because of its correlation with learning deficits, obesity, and increased alcohol and tobacco use, the results prove that there is truth behind the diversity of circadian rhythm in young adults, and they present a solid case for more individualized education that is tailored to the natural bio-cycles of students. 


University of California - Berkeley. (2018, March 29). Poor grades tied to class times that don't match our biological clocks: Schedules of night owls, morning larks and daytime finches may predict their educational outcomes.. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 8, 2018 from