Feeling the heat: The effects of high temperatures on students’ test scores

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The summer months can be tough for students; fitting an entire year of classes and revision into just an hour or two during exam times isn’t easy, but things really heat up from June to September. A recent report by The Independent found that students in buildings without air-con attain worse grades by around 13% on average during exams in the middle of a heatwave. So, just how much of an issue are today’s students facing, and what can we do to help future generations deal with the problem? 

 

Exams bring the heat!

A recent study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, found that heat can have a hugely detrimental effect on test results. The study, which was the first of its kind to analyse the relationship between increased temperatures and lower exam results, involved 10 million US schoolchildren and took place over a period of 13 years. The findings showed that for every 0.55°C increase in temperature, achievement in learning dropped by 1%. Any temperature of more than 21°C was found to have a significant effect on learning ability, whilst anything above 32°C was found to have even more of an effect. Temperatures exceeding 38°C were found to have the biggest impact overall. 

Findings from the study also outlined that higher temperatures only impacted test scores on hotter school days – high temperatures at the weekend were not shown to impact scores. The heat did impact educational time as a whole however, affecting results both at home when doing homework and at school.  

Off the back of this, a similar study by Harvard University looked into the effects of heat on students in university housing. One group of students stayed in non-air conditioned rooms, with the other group staying in rooms with air-conditioning. Findings showed that the students staying in non-airconditioned rooms performed worse at problem solving and memory tests than those in the air-conditioned rooms. 

High temperatures don’t just impact students during the day, however – heat during the night time can also cause a number of issues. 

Impact on sleep

In 2018, during the recent UK summer heatwave, the Guardian reported a rise in sleep problems all over Britain. For a country so used to mild temperatures, the sudden intense heat caused many people to become tired, grumpy and irritable, leading to lower productivity. 

Speaking to the Guardian, sleep medicine expert Dr Michal Farquhar said that: “Britain isn’t really designed to deal with higher than average temperatures. Unlike warmer climates, our homes are designed to keep us warm in the winter more than to keep us cool in the summer, and air conditioning is relatively rare in private homes.” 

Additionally, he explained that the ideal sleeping temperature is a rather limited 16-18°C, so a sudden rise in temperature can affect many people – both at school and at work. 

How to cool down

The effects of climate change are seemingly becoming more apparent, so many of us are wondering what steps we can take to help students deal with the heat. The US National Bureau of Economic Research and Harvard University both recommend that schools and universities should tackle the problem by installing a reliable air conditioning unit in both classrooms and exam halls. The institutions both noted that air-conditioning had a positive effect on reversing the damage to student exam scores caused by too much heat. 

As outlined by the Guardian, however, air-conditioning is rarely found in the UK, especially in universities and schools. 

The Guardian outlined that air-conditioning is not typically found in the UK, however, especially within schools and universities. This makes a lot of sense historically, as the UK has never had a history of extended periods of high temperatures, so in the past, air conditioning wasn’t a wise decision financially. With summers getting hotter each year however, and heatwaves during summer becoming a regular occurrence, some have asked if it’s time for the British attitude towards the value of air-conditioning to change. 

As recommended by The National Education Union, schools and universities should have plans that they can rely on if the temperature does rise to 26°C or above. They recommend measures such as encouraging drinking water in the classroom, moving pupils away from windows, limiting the use of computers and installing a good air conditioning system. Companies like Daikin, for example, can offer their expertise in fitting the right air-conditioning system for educational environments. If warmer summers are really here for the foreseeable future, the UK needs to adapt its buildings in order to keep people safe, comfortable and cool. 

Sources:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-44288982

https://www.teachers.org.uk/files/high-classroom-temperatures_0.doc

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/07/17/heat-makes-you-dumb-four-charts/?utm_term=.836e0353d41a

https://www.theguardian.com/education/shortcuts/2018/may/30/students-dont-do-so-well-in-exams-when-its-hot-so-is-it-time-to-overhaul-the-academic-year

https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/joshuagoodman/files/w24639.pdf

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/weather-heatwave-air-conditioning-hot-stop-brain-working-harvard-university-a8440986.html

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