When Is The Best Time Of Day To Study Maths?

24th April 2017

Many of us identify ourselves as either a morning person or a night owl because we become aware through experience that we perform certain tasks better at certain times during the day.

However, the human brain has certain diurnal patterns which we are largely unaware of and which still require research. Experts are still learning how best to optimise our time and efforts and it seems that the time of day you perform certain types of tasks can genuinely affect performance.

Of course, at ConquerMaths headquarters we are most interested in how these patterns can help our students be more effective learners and so we were fascinated when we heard about the results of a recent long term study.

The study by Ms Velichka Dimitrova of the Royal Holloway University of London tracked academic achievement, class schedules and absence rates at a Bulgarian high school over nine whole years.

Royal Holloway University of London

They claim that they found that whilst performance in most subjects was unaffected by the time of day during which students took the class, History and Mathematics stood out differently.

The study found that teenage students performed better in History classes in the afternoon, with an average 6% rise in test scores compared to when they took History classes in the morning. 6% may not seem like a lot, but it could easily be the difference between an A or a B.

More importantly to us, the other subject that showed variation in test scores was Maths. The study found that when students took maths classes in the morning they scored on average 7% more when tested in classes in the morning compared to attending maths classes in the afternoon. Again, such a percentage difference could make a massive difference in a student’s overall grade.

"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." the study concluded.

The results also support previous research which demonstrated that performance in "repetitive, automatised or overlearnt tasks" is better in the morning, while "perpetual-restructuring tasks", such as analysing and making sense of history, are better performed in the afternoon.

We would argue that much of mathematical learning does involve plenty “perpetual-restructuring” i.e analysis and making sense of ideas but we also understand that much of the work actually done in order to pass exams can be described as repetitive, as students practise to ensure they understand how to work with and apply various concepts to repeated examples. Revision can also be very repetitive.

Different thinking is required for a Humanities subject such as History to be fair and we would like to see more research done. It would be good to investigate whether morning is still the best time if students are working on more creative, problem solving mathematical tasks as opposed to more ‘automatic’ maths tasks, such as revision.

Unfortunately the study did not cover how students performed when working at night, and since students do plenty of revision work in the evenings, it would be good to see more research done on nightime performance when compared to performance during the day. Unfortunately so far no one seems to agree whether studying during the day or at night is better, but at least these findings seem to indicate when in best during daylight hours. 

Ms Dimitrova suggests that these findings mean that schools should think seriously about rearranging their timetables so students always study Maths in the morning and History in the afternoon.

In theory, by rearranging timetables, schools could improve students' results with no or little financial expenditure, something that may be very attractive to schools in these testing times of major budget cuts on top of confusing content reform.

Ms Dimitrova added "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."

If there is truth to these findings, then the best time to use ConquerMaths would indeed be in the morning, before school. We know this is often a hectic time for families, but if a student is serious about improving their grades it might be worth them going to bed earlier and getting up a bit earlier in the morning so they have time to have a session with CM before breakfast. This should be especially beneficial during the revision period when students have study time off. 

This is timely as recent research suggests that allowing teenagers to sleep in a bit later will not actually help them function better in tune with their own body clock, as previous reseach has suggested. Instead check out our article on how studying students can maximise their sleep patterns, and a few suggestions for alternative exam stress management techniques!

We hope this helps everyone's study patterns - do let us know in the comments if swapping your maths revision sessions if you're a student, or changing the time of your maths class if you're a teacher has helped you.