From our enlightened 21st century perches, we frown upon the old practice of forcing left-handers to use their right hands. And yet, today our entire society still functions in a way that is biased against those “owls” whose chronotype means they function better in the evenings. Nowhere is this more evident than in schools, which typically start early in the morning, even though the tendency towards owl-hood is known to peak in adolescence. Now a new investigation of teenagers in Germany has confirmed that owls at school tend to perform worse in their studies than larks, even after factoring out other possible explanations.
Franzis Preckel and her colleagues assessed 272 students (average age 16; 127 girls) from five German schools about their chronotype, educational attainment and a raft of other motivational and psychological measures. Students who were owls, with a preference for the evenings, tended to report having poorer school grades across maths, science and languages. This has been shown in previous studies. The novelty of this research is the comprehensive number of other factors that were investigated. Ultimately, Preckel’s team showed that a student with a greater preference for the evening will tend to score poorer grades at school than a more morning-oriented student (a Lark), even if both students are matched for sex, cognitive ability, motivation, conscientiousness and a trait known as “need for cognition” (a preference for thinking hard). The unique variability in academic performance explained by owl-hood was between two and four per cent.
Why should an evening-orientation lead to poorer grades? The researchers assessed day-time sleepiness – the obvious explanation – but this did not correlate with school grades. Another clue is that owls tend to consume more drugs and are less motivated and conscientious. And yet the link between evening-orientation and poor grades still held even after controlling for motivation and conscientiousness. The last, most plausible explanation, therefore, is that owls perform worse at school because of synchrony effects – that is, people tend to excel when tested at what is the optimal time of day for them. Early starts at school mean students who are owls spend more time studying at, what for them, is a sub-optimal time of day.
Preckel and her colleagues said their findings have obvious educational implications. “In general, parents, teachers, and students themselves should learn more about chronopsychology and its effects on everyday life and learning,” they said.
Thankfully there are signs that the educational establishment is waking up to the importance of chronopsychology, at least in the UK. Monkseaton High School in Tyneside first trialled late starts (10am) in 2009 and initial results in 2010 suggested that grades had subsequently risen and absenteeism fallen. There are also reports that the recently opened UCL Academy in London has instituted 10am start times (although the Daily Mail reported incorrectly that it is the first UK school to do so).
Preckel, F., Lipnevich, A., Boehme, K., Brandner, L., Georgi, K., Könen, T., Mursin, K., and Roberts, R. (2013). Morningness-eveningness and educational outcomes: the lark has an advantage over the owl at high school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 83 (1), 114-134 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.2011.02059.x