Is there a particular season or climate that’s best for learning?
In a recent meeting with colleagues, we stumbled into a discussion about the relationship between winter weather and productivity. Someone suggested that a degree from a college in Maine might be worth more than one from a place like Hawaii or Florida; the implication was that harsh, cold winters are conducive to staying indoors for long hours of focused, sustained studying.
I personally feel that it’s easier to focus in the winter and find myself more likely to undertake activities like reading an extra-long book, studying a foreign language, or learning to play an instrument. But does winter weather actually support learning and productivity? Or is it just an assumption that many of us share? I decided to do a bit of research and find out.
An initial search revealed quite a bit of data to support the idea that hot weather has a negative effect on student performance. The Harvard Kennedy School article “When the heat is on, student learning suffers” summarizes some of the recent findings related to the effects of a hot climate on learning. They include:
- When school years are hotter than average, students score lower on standardized tests.
- At the same time, air conditioning all but eliminates the negative impact of hot temperatures on student achievement.
- Low-income students and students in poorer countries are less likely to have air conditioning and, therefore, are more likely to experience the hotter temperatures that hurt their performance.
The research revealed that “on average, student achievement fell by the equivalent of 1 percent of a year’s worth of learning for each additional degree Fahrenheit in temperature during the year preceding the exam.”
As global temperatures rise, there is significant concern about the detrimental effects that high temperatures will have on learning—particularly in hotter, poorer regions where air conditioning is not widely available.
Peak Learning Temperature
Quite a few studies attempted to find the ideal temperature for student achievement. It turns out that classrooms that are too cold can be just as detrimental to learning as classrooms that are too hot. So, what is the ideal temperature for learning? Research published by the Association for Learning Environments in the article “Does Temperature Impact Student Performance?” examined how high school students performed when taking tests in different temperatures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 72 degrees emerged as the ideal temperature for taking tests. The results showed that, “At 61 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 76%, at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 90%, and at 81 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 72%.”
Other studies have looked at workplace productivity and found similar results. When office thermostats are set to 72 degrees, employees tend to be more focused and productive. Thus, those of us who can control the temperature of the room where we are working or studying have a relatively easy way to improve our performance.
Aging, Weather, and Cognition
Much of the research mentioned above is primarily focused on the performance of younger students in elementary schools and high schools. I did a bit more digging into the effects of temperature and climate on the brains of older adults and found some surprising information. In a study titled “Association between temperature exposure and cognition”, published in BMC Public Health, researchers looked at the way outdoor temperature affected the cognition of older individuals with an average age of 67. Participants in three different climates were given cognitive memory tests that involved recalling a list of words. The results: When temperatures got colder in traditionally warmer regions, cognitive functioning declined. Cognitive performance improved as temps got warmer in the summer and early fall, suggesting that, for older individuals, the warmer months are better for retaining information. Perhaps this is another reason why retirees love to head to warmer climates!
It’s no secret that the seasons and weather affect everyone differently. While I find winter to be a particularly productive time, others may struggle to feel motivated when the days are short and nights are long. For some, spring brings a burst of energy that sparks creativity and curiosity, while for others, the nicer weather might be a distraction—a persistent call to head outside and have some fun. Do you have a particular season that you associate with learning and productivity? As we head into winter, consider whether you might like to hole up and devote some time to learning a new skill or completing a personal project that you were putting off in the warmer months. And, if you’re struggling to stay focused, try setting your thermostat to 72!