The early bird catches the worm – or so the saying goes - however, many of us are just not morning people.

A new study has tied our biological clocks to our academic grades and found that wormless night owls are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to education.

We all have a preferred sleeping pattern or chronotype which is based on our genetics and tied to our circadian rhythm. This natural body clock determines when we are most alert and controls the release of our hormones, body temperature and brain wave activity.

About 10 per cent of us are morning larks and never need an alarm clock while 20 per cent are late-loving night owls that love staying up until the early hours. The rest of us fall somewhere in-between and may note that our sleep behaviours change as we get older.


During puberty, our circadian rhythms switch dramatically and we go from active children, who love to wake our parents up before dawn, to teenagers that can sleep until lunchtime.

This natural shift in teenagers' body clocks is called the "sleep phase delay" and shifts when they feel sleepy by about two hours from 8pm to 10pm. Because teenagers still need an average of nine hours of sleep at night, early morning school schedules mean that many of our teens are constantly running on a sleep deficit.

The study published in the journal Scientific Reports tracked the online activity of nearly 15,000 university students each day by recording when they logged on to campus servers over a two-year period. Looking into the data on the days when the students didn't have any lectures to attend they were able to sort the students into "night owls", "daytime finches" and "morning larks".

The study found that students who were attending classes which were out of sync with their sleeping pattern - for example a night owl taking an early morning class – obtained lower grades than those who were naturally wired for mornings.

This misalignment between our circadian rhythm and rigid school hours can result in something called social jet lag which has been linked to poor communication, decreased concentration and changes in mood patterns, including increased depression. It's not just found in teenagers but can occur at all ages where school or office hours don't align with our natural sleep preferences.

Some workplaces have started to recognise the advantages of offering more flexible work schedules through work-from-home and flexitime programmes allowing employees to tailor their work to their ideal sleep time or family commitments.

Universities are also shifting with some courses offering online lectures so students can choose to watch their course content in their own time rather than attend live lectures at a fixed time.

Primary and secondary schools, however, are still fixed to suit early chronotypes with most of our schools starting at about 9am. According to a study published in the journal Learning, Media and Technology, to help our teenagers to perform to their best academic abilities as they go through their changing sleeping patterns high schools shouldn't really start until 10 or 11am.


Education in New Zealand is shifting to more schools adopting modern learning environments where students learn collaboratively in open-plan, flexible learning spaces using internet sources to help deepen their learning.

This new research begs the question of whether the next big shift in education should be to create more individualised learning where students can set their own schedules that align with their biological clocks, potentially increasing their academic performance at a crucial time in their lives where grades can determine their future.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of Nanogirl, is a nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson.