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Rise and Shine: W&L Students Help Classmates Set Their Biological Clocks

Students at Washington and Lee University who have difficulty performing well in early-morning classes may take some comfort in knowing that their chronotypes are governing their performance. In other words, they are naturally night owls.

W&L students in Fundamentals of Biology: Biological Clock and Rhythms, a fall-term class, analyzed the scientific literature in the relatively new area of chronobiology in order to make specific recommendations on how administrators, faculty and students themselves can help such students perform better in early classes. Chronobiology studies biological clocks and circadian rhythms—the 24-hour cycle that controls sleep-wake patterns and monitors biological processes such as eating schedules, blood pressure, heart beat and body temperature.

“We consider students to be lazy, but they are not lazy,” said Natalia Toporikova, assistant professor of biology, who taught the course. “I think they are actually quite brave little souls who wake up early in spite of their biological clocks, and I think we have to acknowledge that. The students did a lot of work on this study, and I think it was in part because they honestly cared about it. I think the results could be potentially useful for the W&L community.”

Chronotypes reflect an individual’s sleeping habits and govern the optimal times for eating, physical activity and cognitive ability. They fall into three distinct categories—morning, evening and intermediate. An individual’s chronotype can change throughout the course of one’s life, with many older people being morning chronotypes—early birds.

Studies show, however, that most college students are evening chronotypes, or night owls, operating on a schedule better suited to early birds. This can lead to negative effects such as poor academic performance, irregular sleep patterns and disruptions in circadian rhythms. For example, one study showed a dramatic decrease in total minutes of sleep per night and a dramatic delay in bedtime among students that coincides with the start of the academic year. And by the time students graduate, they average only six hours of sleep per school night.

A further study demonstrated a distinct relationship between a student’s chronotype, class times and grades. It showed that night owls received lower grades in difficult morning classes, but they achieved higher grades when they took those difficult classes in the afternoon. It also showed that students who take classes that coincide with their chronotypes recall information from those classes better than students who take classes that conflict with their chronotypes.

“One of the most interesting recommendations for me is the relationship between types of intelligence and how they relate to your chronotype,” said Elliot Emadian, a first-year student in the class. “Crystallized intelligence is recalling or using previously learned information, and fluid intelligence is finding novel ways to solve problems. Fluid intelligence is severely diminished if you operate outside your chronotype range, so a lot of college students will have less-than-stellar performances in morning classes that require processing or synthesizing new information, such as a foreign language or lecture.”

The biology students also studied other factors that affect circadian rhythms, such as light, diet, human contact, exercise and noise. While it may be difficult for individuals to change their chronotype, the students’ research suggests that using external cues from the environment (called zeitgebers) can reduce the negative effects of operating outside one’s chronotype.

For example, while a person’s eating pattern makes no difference, a consistent eating schedule is important in helping the body to expect food at certain times. It also helps to keep the brain functioning and alert as well as providing a signal to the body that energy for a certain activity will soon be needed.

Light also plays a major role in shifting circadian rhythms, since the body is naturally attuned to sunrise and sunset. For example, electric light changes the onset and offset of melatonin—a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle—forcing sleep about two hours later, and producing wakefulness about an hour later, than they would in an environment with natural light.

One experiment demonstrated that removal of all light and other environmental cues completely threw off the subject’s sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythms, shifting slightly later each day. Once the environmental cues were reintroduced, the subject returned to a normal 24-hour cycle.

The class’ research showed that students should try to sleep in accordance with their cycle, regardless of their chronotype. They should aim, however, to maintain a consistent sleep schedule by trying to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. They should also schedule classes at a regular time throughout the week to get into a routine, and limit naps to less than an hour and not after 3 p.m.

The biology class also had recommendations for administrators and faculty at W&L. For one, faculty should expose students to natural light early in the day so that they will be more alert as the day progresses and perform better. Holding class outdoors in abundant natural light would also be a boon. “If you have an 8 a.m. class in a basement, that is really bad,” said Toporikova, “but if you open the windows, you can actually change the biological clock.”

The students also recommended that faculty allow students to take a five-minute break to eat a healthy snack in order to keep their circadian rhythms going. Laboratory classes, in particular, can last for more than four hours. Allowing for one or two breaks during the class would help the students fight fatigue.

The biology students put one of their recommendations into practice early in the term. “We played a biological tag game to engage students and raise their body temperatures so they didn’t sit down and go right back to sleep,” explained Reel Rainsford, a first-year student.

They also recommended that faculty provide a wide range of times for students to take tests and exams. At Washington and Lee, classes end around 5:30 p.m; the students recommended that a few classes beginning later in the evening could be more effective.

The students would also like administrators to hold training sessions for faculty—who tend to be morning chronotypes—to educate them about the different chronotypes, explain how and why students struggle in early classes, and help them create the optimal environment. They’d also like to see all new students fill out a questionnaire to determine their chronotypes, thus helping them to schedule their class times accordingly.

“I liked this project because it helped me re-evaluate my own sleeping patterns and helped me develop strategies on searching through scientific literature,” said Kelly Swanson, a sophomore. “I’m a night owl, so the biology class was difficult for me because it’s early. So I’ll hopefully schedule my classes later in the day and try to go to sleep earlier.”

Recommendations for Night Owls:

  • Avoid early classes, if possible, and schedule classes that require the most attention in the afternoon, when you are at peak performance.
  • Consider using an alarm clock with a gradually brightening light to stimulate a more natural method of waking.
  • Eat when you’re up early, since the body can learn to expect food at certain hours and will increase alertness at those times.
  • If you have trouble falling asleep, consider taking over-the-counter melatonin in the hours leading up to sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption, since it can impair your circadian rhythms for more than 24 hours after drinking. Chronic drinking can influence activity levels, making drinkers lethargic during the day and increasing their activity at night, which makes focusing in class even more difficult.
  • Exposure to artificial light at night delays melatonin onset, making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Take an early-morning physical education or music class.

The biology students studied in four teams; each team produced a website that identified the problem, examined the scientific literature and produced recommendations: