I had always thought of myself as a morning person. When I got to college, I made sure to schedule all my classes so that they started as early as possible and finished by about 3 in the afternoon.
If you can relate, you can imagine how much I was annoyed when my schedule one semester worked out so that none of my classes started until 2:40 at the earliest. How was I going to get through the day when I was sure that I would be falling asleep during all my classes?
But guess what: As my daily class schedule adjusted to later in the day, so did my sleep schedule. I started sleeping until 9 or 10am, shifting my "morning" routine a bit later, and being able to pay attention in my afternoon classes without any urge to sleep.
It also came as a complete surprise when I found that my grades were better during my PM-focused semester than they had ever been previously. What did this mean, aside from the fact that clearly I had been mistaken in thinking that I was hopelessly and permanently a morning person?
[See also: Can you learn while sleeping?]
Does the time of day affect our ability to learn?
I initially came to the conclusion that the change in my routine caused me to learn better in my afternoon/evening classes than in my morning classes, which must have meant that—for me at least—the afternoons and evenings became the “optimal time” of the day for me to learn.
But, is this actually true for everyone? Is there an optimal time in the day that is more productive for learning using Brainscape or otherwise?
Several studies have differentiated between learners who learn best at different times: morning people (or “larks”), versus evening people (or “night owls”). These studies have generally found that students tend to perform best perform best at a time that conforms to their morning-vs-evening preference, even accounting for the "post-lunch crash" that many students of both types report suffering. This agrees with other recent research suggesting that there may be no universally “optimal time” for learning.
But maybe late-night studying is most effective
Despite the somewhat conflicting or inconclusive evidence about whether we perform better in the morning or afternoon, there appears to be greater certainty about the value of studying later in the evening when the goal is to remember it better later.
Research by Jessica D. Payne shows that studying before bed is often the best time to make knowledge “stick”, since it’s fresher in our short-term memory when our brains consolidate our knowledge during sleep. That could be good news for those who wait until the last minute to study for an exam!
[See also: How to cram for a test (if you must)]
The leading theory behind this interesting result is that when we sleep, the items recently residing in our short-term memory are converted into long-term memories by the process of declarative memory consolidation. Items learned close to the person’s bedtime would presumably still reside in short-term memory as the person falls asleep and would therefore be candidates for consolidation into long-term memory. In contrast, items learned earlier in the day could risk slipping out of short-term memory (without long-term consolidation) due to the frequent day-to-day distractions that might fill our finite short-term memory capacity. By the time we go to sleep, the earlier new information might have already been lost.
[PRO TIP: Make studying in the Brainscape app a habit that you do for a few minutes every night before you start shutting things down for bedtime.]
Regardless of the mechanics behind this phenomenon, it is important to remember that there are still many other factors aside from the time of day that affect our ability to learn. The overall amount of sleep, for example, is one element. We know that without a proper amount of sleep, our entire ability to function goes haywire and can lead to “distractibility, impulsivity, and difficulty maintaining attention.”
In addition, we need REM sleep, which is crucial to long-term memory, in order to cement everything we learned the day before. Waking up too early (e.g. after cramming too late at night) can disrupt our memory enhancement and thus make everything that we “learned” the day before becoming unlearned. No matter what people say about being able to function on four hours of sleep, it’s not enough.
There's a lot you can do to optimize your learning
When it comes to the best time to study, remember that the circadian rhythms of our bodies are critical, and naturally, should be somewhat close the cycle of the sunrise and sunset. If we do not let our circadian rhythms work naturally, we mess up the functioning of the rest of our body, which in turn can impair our ability to learn.
In conclusion: yes, people do learn better at different times of the day, but there are so many other factors affecting our learning that a more holistic learning mindset is critical. We've written about various more effective ways to optimize your learning:
- How to study more efficiently
- How to cure insomnia without drugs
- Eating the right brain foods before an exam
- Learning how to exercise while studying
- How to use stress to learn better
And to top it all off, use this in-depth guide to improve your focus while you're actually studying. In the end, it's your self-discipline that will push you past the finish line. You got this!
Adan, A., Archer, S. N., Hidalgo, M. P., Di Milia, L., Natale, V., & Randler, C. (2012). Circadian typology: A comprehensive review. Chronobiology International, 29(9), 1153-1175. https://doi.org/10.3109/07420528.2012.719971
Bhatti, U., Ahmadani, R., & Chohan, M. N. (2017). Intelligent Quotient (IQ) Comparison between Night Owls and Morning Larks Chronotypes in Medical Students. National Editorial Advisory Board, 28(11), 29-31.
Beşoluk, Ş., Önder, İ., & Deveci, İ. (2011). Morningness-eveningness preferences and academic achievement of university students. Chronobiology International, 28(2), 118-125. https://doi.org/10.3109/07420528.2010.540729
Cavallera, G. M. & Giudici, S. (2008). Morningness and eveningness personality: A survey in literature from 1995 up till 2006. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(1), 3-21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.07.009
Holloway, J. (1999). Giving our students the time of day. Educational leadership, 57(1), 87-88.