Does the lark have an advantage over the owl?

We need further research to determine if changing school start times would improve attainment.

ClockThere is a renewed interest in the implications of research from the cognitive sciences for education. My colleague Debra Malpass has discussed research into ‘test enhanced learning’ in her blog. Here I want to discuss research into young people’s time of day preferences, and the impact that these preferences might have on achievement at school.

An individual’s ‘chronotype’ refers to the time at which his or her internal clock synchronises to the 24 hour day. It is thought to depend on both genetic and environmental factors, including the availability and intensity of natural light (see Roenneberg et al., 2003). Chronotype has two dimensions: ‘morningness’ and ‘eveningness’. Morning types, as you might guess, prefer morning activities, get up easily, and are more alert in the morning than in the evening. Evening types prefer afternoon and evening activities, are more alert at night, and are able to sleep in the morning. Research has shown that children tend to be morning types, but shift towards evening types during their later development, reaching a peak in their eveningness at around 20 years old. After this, we become ‘earlier’ again with increasing age.

The fact that children move from being morning types towards being evening types early in adolescence has implications for education and assessment, as several commentators have observed. Especially when coupled with the early start to the school day, potential sleep deficits may create problems for evening-type teenagers. Sleep has been implicated in a variety of important cognitive processes – such as memory consolidation – and sleep deprivation can decrease attention, memory and positive mood.

Studies have examined the potential implications of this age-related shift from morningness to eveningness for school performance. Goldstein et al. (2007) tested morning- and evening-type adolescents during a morning session or an afternoon session. One measure of intelligence showed a synchrony effect, with better performance at times that matched individuals’ preferences. Teenagers’ performance on the intelligence test varied by the equivalent of about six IQ points as the time of the test varied relative to the individual’s time of peak functioning.

In a further study, Randler and Frech (2009) found that pupils with morning preferences performed better in school achievement assessments. In a more recent study, Preckel et al. (2013) showed that being an evening type was significantly negatively associated with school achievement, even when factors such as gender and motivation were taken into account. In both studies, this was a general effect, rather than being related to the time at which students took the assessments.

Some argue that this research should be considered when devising school timetables. If important classes such as English and mathematics are taught in the morning, older school children may be learning this critical material at a non-optimal time of day. This could result in poorer performance than might be found if courses were taught in sync with the students’ circadian rhythms (as argued by Kim et al., 2001). Another argument is that delaying school start times would boost achievement.

I think it is important to remember that this research is in its early stages and needs to make more progress. I am not convinced that the existing research makes the case that a change in start times would necessarily improve academic achievement. For example, there has been widespread media reporting of Monkseaton High School, where a later school start time has been linked to improved punctuality and a significant improvement in GCSE results. Yet as far as I can tell, these results haven’t yet been published in a format that would enable detailed scientific scrutiny.

In England, there is a renewed interest in the use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in education research (as well as some scepticism, as this article by Geoff Whitty shows). Despite this, RCTs may well be an appropriate way of telling whether a change in school start times, or changes to the school timetable, could improve achievement.

Daniel Acquah

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