individual differences

Homework revisited

At the same time as a group of French parents and teachers have called for a two-week boycott of homework (despite the fact that homework is officially banned in French primary schools), and just after the British government scrapped homework guidelines, a large long-running British study came out in support of homework.

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Biological clocks and memory

I’ve always been interested in the body’s clocks — and one of the most interesting things is that it is clocks, in the plural. It appears the main clock is located in a part of the brain structure called the hypothalamus (a very important structure in the brain, although not one of much importance to learning and memory). The part of the hypothalamus that regulates time is called the suprachiasmatic nuclei. These cells contain genes that switch on, off, and on again over a 24-hour period, and send electrical pulses and hormones through the body. This is the body’s master clock.

But it is not the only clock in the body. Each organ in the body uses the time signal from the master clock to set its own clock. As a consequence, different systems in the body operate on different schedules. Thus blood pressure peaks at one particular time of the day, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise and fall in accordance with the clock that governs this.

The effect of this is that certain physical disorders are more likely to occur at particular times, and, more significantly, that certain medications may be far more effective at certain times.

What does all this have to do with learning and memory?

Well, not a whole lot of research has been done on the effects of time of day on cognitive performance, but what has been done is reasonably consistent. It seems clear that, for many people (but not all), there are significant time of day effects. The most reliable is that, in general, teenagers and young adults perform best (mentally) in the afternoon, while older adults (seniors) perform best in the morning.

Having said that, let’s qualify it a little.

Let’s start with a table. Now, this represents the findings of one study [4], so let’s not get carried away with the illusion of precision cast by actual numbers. Nevertheless, it is interesting. These percentages represent the preferences reported by the young and old participants in the study. These preferences correlated with improved performance on a memory test.

  Young Old
Definite morning 0% 34%
Moderate morning 8% 49%
No preference 57% 10%
Moderate evening 29% 6%
Definite evening 6% 1%

Now the first thing to note is how marked the differences are between young and old. Of particular interest is how many of the younger adults had no preference. Compare this with that of older adults. The second finding of particular note is how pronounced the preference for the morning is in older adults — 83% preferred morning. And, most interesting of all, is a finding from another study by the same researchers [5]: when tested at their preferred time, older adults performed comparably to younger adults on a memory task. Younger adults, by contrast, seem able to perform well at all times.

There is also some evidence [3] that the deleterious effect of interference (the intrusion of irrelevant words, objects, events) is worse for older adults at those times of day when their performance is poorer. Older adults are more vulnerable to interference than younger adults.

The findings for teenagers and young adults may also apply to children. One study [2] found that below-grade-level students who received reading instruction in the afternoon improved their performance more than those students who received instruction in the morning.

But it must always be remembered that this general principle that morning is better for the aged, and afternoon better for the young, does not apply to each and every individual. As the table tells us, time of day affects some people more than others, and time preference is an individual matter, not entirely predicted by age. This is underscored by a study [1] that found improved performance when students were taught at times that matched their preferences. There was also some evidence that, for some students at least, achievement was greater when they were taught during their teacher's ideal time of day.

None of this is an argument that you should resign yourself to learning only at your preferred time of day! But you could use the information to modify your strategies. For example, by scheduling difficult work for your optimal time (assuming you have an optimal time, and are not one of those fortunate people who have no strong preference). You can also try and counteract the effect by, for example, drinking coffee during your nonoptimal time of day (this was found to be effective in one study with older adults [6]).


  1. Ammons, T.L., Booker, J.L. & Killmon, C.P. 1995. The effects of time of day on student attention and achievement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 384 592)
  2. Barron, B., Henderson, M. & Spurgeon, R. 1994. Effects of time of day instruction on reading achievement of below grade readers. Reading Improvement, 31(1), 56–60.
  3. Hasher, L., Chung, C., May, C.P. & Foong, N. 2002. Age, Time of Testing, and Proactive Interference. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 56, 200-207.
  4. Intons-Peterson, M.J., Rocchi, P., West, T., McLellan, K. and Hackney, A. 1998. Aging, optimal testing times, and negative priming.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 24(2), 362-376.
  5. Intons-Peterson, M.J., Rocchi, P., West, T., McLellan, K. and Hackney, A. 1999. Age, testing at preferred or nonpreferred times (testing optimality), and false memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 25(1), 23-40.
  6. Ryan, L., Hatfield, C. & Hofstetter, M. 2002. Caffeine Reduces Time-of-Day Effects on Memory Performance in Older Adults. Psychological Science, 13 (1), 68-71.
  7. West, R., Murphy, K.J., Armilio, M.L., Craik, F.I.M. & Stuss, D.T. 2002. Effects of Time of Day on Age Differences in Working Memory. Journals of Gerontology Series B, 57 (1), P3-P10

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Ability to delay gratification predicts success only in some contexts

There's been a lot of talk in education about the message from research that self-control in pre-schoolers predicts their later success in the classroom and in life. While I do think that this is an important message that should be taken on board by educators and parents, it's worth ameliorating it somewhat with the odd caveat - as offered in this latest study.

Simon Makin at Scientific American:

Celeste Kidd … suspected there might be a common misconception about the classic marshmallow study—namely, that waiting is always the right choice. While volunteering years ago at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, Calif., she realized that all the kids around her would eat their marshmallows straight away, living as they did in an environment where anything they had could be taken away at any time. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered,” Kidd says.

Although previous marshmallow-type studies have acknowledged that external factors might influence kids’ ability to wait for the bigger reward, none had directly tested for those factors’ effects.

Scientific American article

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Strategy use more important than IQ for academic achievement

Nice review in Scientific American of some of the research showing that the active use of a wide array of effective learning strategies is more important for academic achievement than ‘ability’.

... The researchers related their findings to The Matthew Effect: those with high intrinsic motivation and effective learning strategies will tend to increase their ability, while those without those characteristics will tend to decrease their ability. Over time, the gap between those with higher ability and those with lower ability will widen. Which is all the more reason why we ought to set up the right conditions for active engagement for everyone, and teach people the proper strategies for success. ...

Read the full article

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The curators of normal

I've spoken before about the pernicious dangers in the concept of 'normal', and I have always privately deplored the excesses of the psychiatrist's 'bible', the DSM, so I was delighted to read this review in the New Republic of a book unapologetically tearing it to shreds:

... Would my patient have been better off without the label and therefore without the opportunity—the mandate, even—to be treated (with drugs, of course)? Or would I have been better advised to work with his spouse’s straightforward and cheap-to-run assessment that he was “out of control of himself”?

In The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry, psychotherapist and author/journalist Gary Greenberg contends that the politics behind the label-making have become so dense and so pernicious, and the science so thin, that the answer to both questions may very well be yes. Greenberg is not the first to make such an argument, but he makes it with extraordinary eloquence and with the insight of a true insider. For more than two years, he embedded himself in the labors of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as it rewrote—for the fifth time—its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, psychiatry’s nosological bible. The Book of Woe is his account of the making of the DSM-5. ...

Read the article

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Decision-making, working memory, and age

In October I reported on a study that found older adults did better than younger adults on a decision-making task that reflected real-world situations more closely than most tasks used in such studies. It was concluded that, while (as previous research has shown) younger adults may do better on simple decision-making tasks, older adults have the edge when it comes to more complex scenarios. Unsurprisingly, this is where experience tells.


Mikels, J.A., Löckenhoff, C.E., Maglio, S.J., Carstensen, L.L., Goldstein, M.K. & Garber, A. 2010. Following your heart or your head: Focusing on emotions versus information differentially influences the decisions of younger and older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(1), 87-95.

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Normal is a label too

We all like simple solutions. However much we may believe we are ‘above’ black-&-white dichotomies, that of course we understand that every situation is complex, nevertheless we have a brain that can only think of a very very few things at once. So it's unsurprising that we are drawn to solutions that can be summed up simply, that can fit comfortably within the limitations of working memory.


Mottron, L. (2011). Changing perceptions: The power of autism. Nature. 479(7371), 33 - 3

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Intelligence isn’t as important as you think

Our society gives a lot of weight to intelligence. Academics may have been arguing for a hundred years over what, exactly, intelligence is, but ‘everyone knows’ what it means to be smart, and who is smart and who is not — right?

Of course, it’s not that simple, and the ins and outs of academic research have much to teach us about the nature of intelligence and its importance, even if they still haven’t got it all totally sorted yet. Today I want to talk about one particular aspect: how important intelligence is in academic success.


Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2003). Personality traits and academic examination performance. European Journal of Personality, 17(3), 237-250. doi:10.1002/per.473

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological science, 16(12), 939-44. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01641.x

Furnham, A., & Chamorro-premuzic, T. (2005). Personality and Intelligence : Gender , the Big Five , Self-Estimated and Psychometric Intelligence. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 13(1), 11-24.

Furnham, A., Rinaldelli-Tabaton, E. & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). Personality and Intelligence Predict Arts and Science School Results in 16 Year Olds. Psychologia, 54 (1), 39-51.

von Stumm, S., Hell B., & Chamorro-Premuzic T. (2011). The Hungry Mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6(6), 574 - 588.

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