Belverd E. Needles, Jr., Ph.D., CPA, CMA
Editor, Accounting Instructors’ Report
EY Distinguished Profess of Accounting
School of Accountancy
DePaul University

In the past AIR Trends (Spring 2017 and Fall 2017), I address Engaging Today’s Millennial (and other students) first through use of the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) and second through understanding what students want in an instructor. In this Trends, I address the effect of class timing and its effect on student performance.(1) The performance of students in your classes of course relates to the general background and preparation of the students as well as to outside commitments, such as jobs and family responsibilities, but it also can relate to the time of day the course is offered. Consider the following;

  • Students’ cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the 16 or so hours they are awake these abilities change—often in a regular foreseeable manner. Students learn faster and easier in certain parts of the day than in other parts of the day.
  • The daily fluctuations can be extreme. In their book, “Rhythms of Life,” Russell Foster, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford and Leo Kreitzman points that the performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be the equivalent to “the effect on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol.” Other research has shown that time-of-day effects can explain 20 percent of the variance in human performance on cognitive undertakings.
  • How students do can depend on what learning activities they are doing. Some learning activities produce better results early in the day whereas others may be better later in the day.
  • Most people experience the periods in a day: a peak, a trough, a rebound. Most students experience the pattern of the day in that order. Students are generally most alert in morning classes, less alert in afternoon classes, and better in evening classes, but roughly one in five experience reverse order. These are those students who are “night owls” and who have trouble getting up in the morning.

If you teach morning and evening classes, you will have less difficulty keeping the attention of your students and probably have more success. The effects of the tough on students’ performance can be dramatic. In a 2016 study by Harvard University’s Francesca Gino and two Danish researchers examined four years of standardized test results for two million students in Denmark and matched scores to the time of day the students took the test. They found that students who took the test in the afternoon scored considerably lower than those students who took the test in the morning. The difference was equivalent to missing two weeks of class.

During the peak period in the morning, students are better at reading and retaining information such as from texts and from lectures. During the rebound stage, students tend to be better at problem-solving. For example, in 2011, two American psychologists, Mareike Weith and Rose Zacks found in a study of 488 people, about half of whom were morning-thinkers, were much better at problem solving in the evening.

What we can learn from these studies is that we need to tailor our classes to the time of day, even though the characteristics of the students in the classes may be similar. In morning classes, it is okay to spend more time on lectures although other activities such as going over assignments should not be avoided. In evening classes, more focus can be
placed on going over and working problems in class.

Afternoon classes are the most challenging. Students tend to be more lethargic and have difficulty concentrating. It is important to get students involved in the learning process and not just sitting back with minds wandering. You can do this by asking questions, assigning in class problems, forming group to do learning activities. It is not a good idea to plow into a PowerPoint lecture. A technique I have found helpful and described in Spring 2017 Trends in getting all students involved quickly in my afternoon classes is the Nominal Group Technique (NGT). This technique as you may recall was designed to obtain everyone’s ideas in as short a time as possible, to encourage maximum participation by each person, to focus the group’s concentration on a specific question, and to reach a group consensus through a voting process. Whatever methods you use, in an afternoon class, work hard to get the students involved.

(1) The science in this Trends is based on an essay by Daniel H. Pink, “The Timely Science of Successful Resolutions,” Wall Street Journal December 30-31, C1-2.