The Afternoon Effect

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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When is the best time to learn?

‘Stick history into the afternoon and do fractions early doors.’

According to one recent study, the best time of the day to learn maths, is in the morning because pupils concentrate better. This might not come as any surprise to many but are maths lessons held in the afternoon really less effective?

Good Afternoon?

Academics at Royal Holloway, University of London found that when teenagers had maths in the morning rather than after midday, their exam results improved by 7%.

Using a decade long dataset in a high school specialising in humanities and foreign languages , Velichka Dimitrova examined academic achievement, class timetables and absence rates at a secondary school in Bulgaria and she found exam results could be improved just be re-jigging the timetables. She said,

“In the morning our brains are better and fresher, so we are better at doing something repetitive like problem solving, where we require more speed and attention and focus. In the afternoon it seems that this process slows down. On the other hand, history is better suited to the afternoon, when we are more creative and open to discussion”.

Researchers found students were better at completing repetitive tasks first thing while tasks that involve evaluation are best left until later in the day.

“The findings indicate that afternoon classes lowered maths test scores and increased history test scores, which relate to psychology and neuroscience research about optimal functioning in different times of the day.”

This study also mirrors the findings of Nolan Pope at the University of Chicago who notes that students are more productive in morning than the afternoon, especially in maths and “this variation in productivity can be exploited to increase efficiency.”

Pope identified three possible contributing factors for why students performed better:

  • changes in the quality of instruction over the course of the school day
  • changes in students’ learning ability during the school day
  • differences in student attendance at the start and end of the school day.

Opposite to these views, others have found that children seem to do better when they are taught and tested in the afternoon than in the morning.

Then there is research by Davis (1987b) who found learning of mathematics did not strictly fall into an optimal time-of-day and end of year results were not determined by whether students had maths in the morning or the afternoon.

Sleep On It

In a previous blog, we have looked at time of day effects, body clocks and the impact of sleep or rather lack of it. If we push maths into the mornings then our students are never going to do very well as teenage body clocks aren’t in tune with early starts and so maths in the afternoon makes more sense. Research has shown that due to changing sleep patterns during adolescence, academic gains can be achieved by beginning school later. Typically the cognitive function of adolescents peaks in the afternoon, not the morning.

Wouldn’t it therefore be better to get students engaged in physical activities in the morning? The idea that maths is best suited to the AM slot does maths a disservice and sells it short as a technical and academic subject when in actual fact it is brimming over with creativity, evaluation and discussion.

Maths as we know it is far more deep and meaningful than it is stereotypically seen and actually moving it into afternoon sessions would make a lot of sense. To see maths as mechanical and analytical does its image no favours especially in the age of STEAM where maths and the arts are inextricably linked.

Maths is a vibrant and dialogue heavy subject that involves plenty of proof, interaction, collaboration, negotiation and restructuring.  To see problem-solving as repetitive and automatised is skew-whiff and to see maths as having no narrative qualities without drama is similarly off-kilter.

Now’s Not A Good Time

A couple of studies cannot push us into making new timetabling decisions because the reality is that each person is different and there is no ‘best way’ or optimal time for everyone. One size does not fit all. And what about teachers? Do teachers work better in the mornings than the afternoons? As Velichka Dimitrova says,

For teachers themselves, the time-of-day effects may work in similar ways and would have an indirect impact on students’ test scores.

As teachers are in school for a longer period of time than students, it is likely that during a given day our teaching and learning ability decreases due to fatigue.  Holloway (1999) found that students performed better during their teacher’s optimal time of day so if you are a morning person then your students could do better!


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