The effect of time of the day on learning: mathematics better in the morning

This study has a high ‘no shit, Sherlock?’-level until you combine it with the idea of being more a morning or evening person. Still many teachers will recognize that students learn mathemathics and English better in the mornings than the afternoons.

I found the study by Nolan G. Pope via a tweet by Dylan William and although the effects aren’t that enormous, still when compared with other known effects it’s could be an interesting idea to check the time tables of your school:

“…the results tend to show that students are more productive earlier in the school day, especially in math. These time-of-day differences in productivity along with a simple rearrangement of when tasks are performed allow for efficiency gains to be obtained in schools.”

One thing I was wondering is also being tackled by the author of the study: “Is this conclusion not in conflict with the often heard plea for a later start of the schoolday”:

It is important to understand how the results are distinct from the school start time literature. At first glance, the results appear to be in the opposite direction and contradictory to the school start time literature estimates. However, the results of this paper estimate a slightly different effect than the school start time literature does. All of the results in this paper are estimated conditional on a given school start time. Therefore, all the results hold constant items such as how much sleep students get, annual attendance rates, and annual morning tardiness, whereas changing the school start time makes these items vary. Conversely, changing school start times do not affect changes in stamina throughout the day or differences between morning and afternoon class attendance, whereas these things are affected by moving a class from the afternoon to the morning. Both moving school start times and moving a class from the afternoon to the morning affect when during the circadian rhythm, students are taking certain classes. The fact that the results are in the opposite direction likely implies that differential learning throughout the day is being driven not by circadian rhythms but by other things, such as stamina. A simple illustration of how the results are estimating differ- ent effects is to look at policy. Moving school start times later increases students’ math GPA regardless of which period students take math. However, moving school start times later and moving math class from period 6 to period 1 increases students’ math GPA even more.

Abstract of the study:

Increasing the efficiency of the school system is a primary focus of policymakers. I analyze how the time of day affects students’ productivity and if efficiency gains can be obtained by rearranging the order of tasks they perform throughout the school day. Using a panel data set of nearly 2 million sixth- through eleventh-grade students in Los Angeles County, I perform within-teacher, class type, and student estimation of the time-of-day effect on students’ learning as measured by GPA and state test scores. I find that given a school start time, students learn more in the morning than later in the school day. Having a morning instead of afternoon math or English class increases a student’s GPA by 0.072 (0.006) and 0.032 (0.006), respectively. A morning math class increases state test scores by an amount equivalent to increasing teacher quality by one-fourth standard deviation or half of the gender gap. Rearranging school schedules can lead to increased academic performance.


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