How to Improve Student Performance Through the Science of Timing

Oct 26, 2023
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Have you ever noticed that, during certain times of the day, your classroom is buzzing, students are working diligently, and everyone is getting along, while during other times of the day, things are a bit chaotic, and you find yourself having to constantly correct behavior and refocus attention? Turns out, there are scientific reasons behind why this happens. Getting to the heart of the science of timing can help you significantly improve student performance.

Why the Science of Timing Matters: What it Means

According to Daniel Pink, author of the book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, we experience the day in three stages—a peak, a trough, and a rebound. Tracing your students’ progression through these stages may be key to keeping them engaged all day long.

Peak Time

For most people, the peak stage occurs in the morning. Analysis of patterns in the tones of Twitter posts, mood tracking, and even the content of corporate earnings calls demonstrates that we are happier and generally more emotionally balanced in the mornings. But it’s not just our moods that are better earlier in the day. We are also better at learning and performing analytical tasks in the mornings.

Time of Day and Test Results

In When, Pink cites a study in which a Harvard researcher, along with two Danish researchers, reviewed four years of testing data for two million Danish schoolchildren. They mapped the results to the time of day. For every hour later in the day the test was given, scores decreased. The effects of testing later in the day were similar to those of missing two weeks of school or having parents with slightly lower incomes or levels of education.

A researcher from the University of Chicago noted a similar phenomenon when studying standardized test scores and grades of over two million students in Los Angeles. Students who took math in the first two periods of the school day, regardless of what time school started, had higher GPAs in math than students who took math in the last two periods of the day.

All this goes to show that afternoons can feel notably different for students than mornings do. As time goes on, attention spans and cognitive abilities may decline. Stay ahead of this challenge by taking advantage of peak times and preparing for drops in performance before they occur.

Making the Most of the Peak to Improve Student Performance

Try these simple tweaks to maximize what the peak period does for your students:

  • Consider setting up your daily schedule such that math and reading occur in the earlier part of the day and special classes like music and art happen in the afternoon. We’re better at analytical tasks during the peak and more creative during the third period, recovery.
  • If you can’t modify the schedule in this way, consider creating a rotating schedule in which the class schedule flips every other day so that students are taking the most important subjects during peak time on a regular basis.
  • Whenever possible, allow all students to take tests in the mornings.

The Other Side of the Science of Timing: The Trough

Have you ever noticed that your students seem to start losing their minds at around 1:30 PM and that your patience tends to drop as well? That’s because the trough stage begins 6 to 7 hours after we wake up. So, if students wake up between 6 and 7 AM, they usually head into the trough stage at about 1:00 PM.

The trough is the stage of the day in which we grow tired, we tend to be more irritable, and our self-control and focus wane. Surgeries are more dangerous during the afternoons, and one of the times of day in which the most car accidents occur is between 2 PM and 4 PM. According to Pink, the difference in productivity between the trough stage and the peak stage can be the equivalent of being under the influence of the legal limit of alcohol.

Improve Student Performance by Managing the Trough

Unfortunately, you can’t just end the school day at 1 p.m. But there is a very simple way to boost productivity during the trough period: give students breaks.

After a restorative break, people are more alert and productive. In fact, when Danish school children took a 20- to 30-minute break before a test, their scores went up even more than the time of day caused them to decline. The effect was similar to having three additional weeks of instruction or having parents who were slightly wealthier or more educated.

If you can’t add an afternoon recess to the schedule, consider giving students five- or 10-minute classroom breaks each hour to chat with classmates, walk around the room, and just relax. Being outside in nature and sunlight is even more restorative, so taking students for a walk around the school building or a break in the courtyard can work even better. The increase in productivity and focus will more than make up for the loss of instructional time.

Looking for more ways to optimize your classroom? Check out these blog posts on building relationships with students, high school classroom management, middle school classroom management, and relaunching yourself as a teacher.

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