When it comes to time, school reformers are spending more and more of theirs debating whether to extend the length of the school day and the school year. Educators, however, might find it more helpful to focus on how they use the time that is currently available to the students in our classrooms. A report by the National Commission on Time and Learning (1994) states,
Time should be adjusted to meet the individual needs of learners, rather than the administrative convenience of adults. The dimensions of time in the learning process extend far beyond whether one student needs more time and another can do with less. The flexible use of time can permit more individualized instruction.
How can schools use time to maximize learning?
Time of Day and Student Achievement
Barron, Henderson, and Spurgeon (1994) have found that the time of day that teachers teach reading affects the mastery skills of below-grade-level students. The researchers selected 128 underachieving students in grades 1 through 4 in a Chapter I Reading Program and assigned these pupils randomly to control and experimental groups. Teachers conducted reading instruction with each control group in the morning and with each experimental group in the afternoon. All groups took pre- and post-tests. The researchers found an overall increase in the mean reading scores for below-grade-level students who received instruction in the afternoon as compared with those of the similar group who received instruction in the morning.
Ammons, Booker, and Killmon (1995) investigated how time of day affects the academic achievement of a general population of elementary students. The researchers set out to determine whether students had higher levels of attention and achievement when they received instruction at times that coincided with their time-of-day preferences as indicated on the Learning Styles Inventory. Teachers used scripted laser disc science lessons in morning and afternoon situations, then conducted appropriate assessments.
Although the researchers found that time of day does play a significant part in student achievement, not all students performed best at one time of day. Instead, when students were taught at times that matched their learning style preferences, they scored significantly higher on lesson-related quizzes. This correlation was particularly strong in the case of students whose preferred time of learning was the afternoon.
In addition, the study showed that students scored better, on average, when they were taught during their teacher's ideal time of day. This factor suggests that teachers' time-of-day preferences have some influence on student learning. Like Barron's work, this study illustrated that teachers should consider time of day when they plan and implement lessons.
School Starting Time
Researchers and reformers are also considering the matter of school starting time. Conventional wisdom holds that most school districts should set the earliest starting time for older adolescents and the latest starting time for younger children. This approach accommodates transportation limitations and the athletic and employment interests of high school students. Most school districts, however, fail to consider the biological changes of adolescence, including sleep requirements.
Jensen (1998) reports on the importance of the rapid eye movement (REM) state in sleep. REM sleep is crucial to maintaining memories. During this time, two areas of the brain become highly active. One area processes intense emotions, and the other area is important to long-term memory. Jensen suggests that during REM sleep, the brain rehearses the prior day's learning. This instant replay consolidates and enhances memory. Waking up too early affects REM sleep, however. We need those last few hours of sleep the most for memory enhancement.
Many chemicals regulate sleep. With the onset of the hormonal changes that occur in puberty, a teen's sleep clock generates a natural bedtime that is closer to midnight and a waking time closer to 8 a.m. (Jensen, 1998). Further, sleep experts have found that most teens are not able to fall asleep at an early hour. As a result, many teenagers are grossly sleep deprived.
Dahl (1999) reports that adolescents require about 9 1/4 hours of sleep and exhibit a variety of disorders when sleep deprived. For instance, he has found that sleep deprivation can mimic or exacerbate ADHD (attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder). Symptoms of sleep deprivation include distractibility, impulsivity, and difficulty maintaining attention.
Would starting school later resolve sleep deprivation? Kubow, Wahlstrom, and Bemis (1999) report current research to test this thesis. In a study by the Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement and the University of Minnesota, researchers recently examined the impact on students of changing school starting times. Seven high schools in the Minneapolis Public School system changed from a 7:15 a.m. to an 8:40 a.m. start. In preliminary results, 57 percent of participating high school teachers reported that a greater number of students were more alert during the first two periods of the day when they started school at the later time. In addition, teachers reported improved student behavior in the hallways between classes and during lunch. The downside, however, was that more students reported being tired later in the afternoon. In addition, both teachers and students complained that athletes had to miss classes to attend practices or competitions, and students objected to the reduction in the number of hours that they were able to work at after-school jobs.
Kubow, Wahlstrom, and Bemis state,
The effects on teaching and learning are only beginning to emerge. If we are to know anything of substance, the medical and education research in this issue and its outcomes must continue for several years to come. (1999, p. 371)
Ongoing research indicates that time of day does play a significant role in student learning. Research may soon enable teachers, administrators, and policymakers to make informed decisions about how to modify school schedules and classroom routines to maximize student learning.
Will using time-of-day preferences to enhance student achievement eventually become more commonplace in our schools? Time will tell.
Ammons, T. L., Booker, J. L., & Killmon, C. P. (1995). The effects of time of day on student attention and achievement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 384 592)
Barron, B., Henderson, M., & Spurgeon, R. (1994, Spring). Effects of time of day instruction on reading achievement of below grade readers. Reading Improvement, 31(1), 56–60.
Dahl, R. F. (1999). The consequences of insufficient sleep for adolescents: Links between sleep and emotional regulation. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(6), 354–359.
Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Kubow, P., Wahlstrom, K. L., & Bemis, A. E. (1999). Starting time and school life: Reflection from educators and students. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(6), 366–371.
National Commission on Time and Learning. (1994). Prisoners of time [On-line]. Available: http://www.emich.edu/public/emu_programs/tlc/toc.html
John Holloway is a consultant for the Licensure Development Group, Teaching and Learning Division, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Rd., Princeton, NJ 08541 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).