When and How To Optimize Learning

Teachers know that students learn differently at various times of the day. For example, executive functioning often declines during the afternoon for both children and adults. In fact, one study found that errors in hospitals were three times more likely to occur after 3:00 pm. Another study found that students assigned to take a test at the end of the school day performed at a level equivalent to having missed two weeks of classes compared to students who took the same test in the morning. 

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For educators, these findings make a strong case for schools aligning instructional activities at certain times of the day in order to optimize learning outcomes. The early afternoon may be best for practicing skills or reviewing material rather than tackling new or challenging concepts. And when complex tasks are required in the afternoon, teachers should keep in mind that students benefit from certain strategies that help to reset their learning rhythms. For example, providing students with a ten- to fifteen-minute break to eat or chat before they attempt complex problems or take a test in the afternoon can be very helpful.

But regardless of the time of the day, taking frequent, short breaks are often helpfulespecially if they involve physical movement. For example, a five-minute walk between classes, particularly if it requires going outside, is shown to significantly increase learning. And this is particularly the case if students have the chance to chat with their peers along the way, giving their minds a different focus than their studies. For though these breaks take time, in the end they help to make learning more efficient and productive.

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