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How to improve the school timetable for better grades

The impact of the school timetable on grades

3 min read
  • The science of learning

Schools are constantly searching for new ways to improve learning and allow all students to maximise their full potential. However, with school budgets becoming increasingly tight, the scope for change is minimal. This leaves very little space for error, and any new interventions they employ need to be low cost and well researched.

Restructuring the school timetable to maximise student performance can potentially tick both these boxes. This would present a perfect low cost and easy to implement solution. Much of a student’s ability to learn is determined by their mental state and their biological rhythms, known as circadian rhythms. Therefore, if schools can schedule classes in a way that reduces student’s cognitive load and aligns their lessons with their circadian rhythms, enhanced academic performance should follow.

After years of research, we now know better than ever how to achieve this – so, here are the best ways you can make your school’s timetables work for your students.

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How could we improve the school timetable?

Later start times

Recent research found that, all things being equal, students learn significantly more in their afternoon classes than they do in their morning ones. Students also need more sleep than adults and teenagers struggle to get to sleep early at night due to biological differences and their brain still developing. When we combine these two findings, it’s easy to see that they are often running a hefty sleep deficit.

In one particular study which investigated start times over a period of more than 3 years, looking at over 9,000 students, researchers found that shifting start times until at least 08:30 helped more than 60% of students get at least 8 hours sleep and lead to improvements across subjects including Maths, English and Science.

It therefore would make sense for schools to try out later start times, to prioritise their students’ sleep and make the best of the times of day they learn the most efficiently. For more information on this, we even wrote a blog to find out whether starting school later leads to better grades.

Fewer consecutive classes

Schools should look to schedule as few consecutive classes as possible, as recent research has found that the more consecutive classes a student has the worse their performance becomes. Moreover, this effect was particularly prevalent amongst lower performing students, preventing them from making much needed progress. This occurs as a result of cognitive fatigue, meaning that students struggle to absorb the full amount of relevant teaching material. Similar outcomes were also observed when students had a heavy load of classes in one day.

Therefore, schools could consider lengthening the school day to allow students to have more breaks and free periods, where they can refocus. Alternatively, schools may consider slightly shortening the lunch break to allow students to have more frequent but shorter breaks (15-20 minutes) throughout the day.

Carefully planned teacher schedules

Above helping all students learn, restructuring the timetable also offers an opportunity to decrease the discrepancy in performance between students who are high achievers and those who struggle the most.

Research has found that teachers improve their teaching of the same material as the day goes on. Therefore, placing struggling students in a teacher’s second or third lesson of the day may also be beneficial and help all students have similar chances of performing well.

Final thoughts

Shifting the needle on student grades is notoriously difficult, as there are no quick fixes. However, structuring student timetables to incorporate later start times, more frequent breaks and teachers offering more practiced material to struggling students is a low cost and easy to implement option. This is an intervention that all schools could use fairly easily to give their students the best chance of maximising their full academic potential.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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