By Mark Scott
When you attended Hendrix College were you a Lark or an Owl?
Chances are your grades were affected by your sleeping habits, according to research presented by Jennifer Peszka, an associate professor of psychology at Hendrix, during last year's annual Associated Professional Sleep Societies meeting. Peszka is becoming one of the nation's foremost experts on sleep study research, especially research associated with college students and young adults. Her research has recently been featured by Time magazine and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, along with numerous newspapers and magazines throughout the world.
Peszka earned her bachelor's degree from Washington and Lee University in 1994 and her master's and doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi. She has been at Hendrix since 1999.
In her research, Peszka refers to early-to-bed and early-to-rise students as larks, while those late-night studiers are owls. The new data she presented last year suggest a student's sleep schedule had a lot to do with his or her grade point average – specifically, night-owls have lower GPAs than fellow students who prefer to go to bed earlier. While that isn't a huge surprise, Peszka's new research goes further, quantifying the impact of erratic or inadequate sleep on grades.
According to Time, Peszka asked a group of 89 incoming Hendrix College freshmen ages 17 to 20 to fill out a questionnaire about their sleep preferences prior to arriving on campus. Regardless of how much they actually slept, Peszka asked them whether they considered themselves owls, larks or, in the case of those who were neither very late or very early sleepers, robins. Students also answered questions about their sleep "hygiene" — factors that contribute to quality of sleep, such as adhering to a regular bedtime, waking up at the same time every day, or exercising or drinking caffeine before trying to sleep. One year, Peszka asked the same students to fill out another similar questionnaire to determine whether their sleep schedules were associated with GPA.
The ultimate conclusions were clear. The owls averaged a 2.84 GPA at the end of their freshman year, while larks and robins both averaged 3.18. Peszka also compared the students' high school GPAs with their college scores, and found that owls had lost an entire GPA point once entering college — larks and robins also saw their grades drop (a common occurrence as students transition from high school to university), but not as much.
The study did not delve into the details of why owls may perform worse in school, but Peszka told Time it may boil down to "an owl living a lark's schedule." Students with late bedtimes still end up taking early morning classes, which means they often end up feeling sleepier and less alert during the day. In Peszka's study, night owls slept 41 minutes less each night than the other students, but were still attending early classes, during which they reported sleepiness and inability to concentrate, which led to lower scores at exam time.
Peszka and two other researchers, including her husband, David Mastin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, are continuing their research, with the study expected to be finalized later this year. Additionally, she also recently presented a study related to the effect of console and computer game play on sleep hygiene.