Academic performance is better among students who do their mathematics lessons early in the morning and history in the afternoon, according to a study by Velichka Dimitrova, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.
The study examines variations in the timetable in Bulgarian schools, which produced data documenting academic achievement, absence rates and class schedules for more than a decade. When students took mathematics classes early in the day, they performed better than if they had studied the same class in the afternoon. The reverse was true of history.
This evidence supports research in psychology that finds performance in repetitive, automatised or overlearnt tasks (school mathematics lessons) is better early in the day, while perpetual-restructuring tasks (making sense of history) are best kept for later.
The author comments: ‘Re-arranging school schedules in a more optimal way does not require investment of additional resources and could be a cost-effective intervention leading to improvements in academic performance.’
As our productive capacity for various mental tasks varies during different times of the day, there can be distinctive optimal times to schedule a class depending on the school subject.
Observing a panel of students over a decade who had different timetable arrangements through a double-shift schedule, I can account for individual-level differences and identify the time-of-the-day effects on student grades.
My research shows that scheduling mathematics classes in the morning and history classes in the afternoon results in better academic performance. Making use of these time-of-the-day effects, schools can rearrange schedules in a cost-effective way to improve student outcomes.
Both medical and social science research have reached the conclusion that sufficient sleep is a necessary prerequisite for performing well in cognitive tasks. Later secondary school start times have gained momentum with a number of medical and educational institutions urging schools to abandon early school start times.
Less is known, however, on how substantial delays in start times can affect the quality of educational inputs, including the way teachers deliver and how students perceive learning in different times of the day. Students may absorb the same educational inputs in a different way, depending on varying productivity for academic tasks during the day and the constraints that the school schedules impose on them.
The study of time-of-day effects on student productivity follows research in the area of how shift-work and unusual time patterns influence worker productivity. Extraneous factors related to timing have been found to influence the decisions of judges, financial market participants and taxi drivers.
Early psychology research finds that that performance in repetitive, automatised or overlearnt tasks was better in the morning, while perpetual-restructuring tasks had exactly the reverse pattern with better performance in the afternoon.
The necessity to save costs on school inputs like classrooms and space has led to suggestions of using a system of double-shift schooling in order to expand access to secondary education under resource constraints, where some students attend classes in the morning and others in the afternoon.
Using a unique data set documenting academic achievement, absence rates and class schedules for over a decade within a Bulgarian high school, I can account for individual level effects and identify the impact of different schedules.
Using a policy change, which enabled a transition from a double-shift to a morning-only classes, I explore variation in scheduling, which is not selected by students, therefore allowing for a clearer identification of the time-of-the-day effects. Morning classes for mathematics and afternoon classes for history are the two subjects with statistically significant results.
Rearranging school schedules in a more optimal way does not require investment of additional resources and could be a cost-effective intervention leading to improvements in academic performance.
The afternoon effect: differential impacts on student performance in maths and history