The effect of heat on students’ exam results

Fitting a whole year’s worth of revision and lessons into just a couple of hours can be tough going for students. Exams are difficult enough as they are, but during the summer months, things can really heat up. According to the independent, students in buildings without air-conditioning attain worse grades during tests in the middle of a heatwave – by around 13%. So, just how widespread is this issue, and what can be done to help future students?

Feeling the heat

According to a study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, heat has a significant impact on exam results. This study, which was picked up by numerous news outlets as the first major analysis of the correlation between higher temperatures and lower exam scores, took place over a 13-year time period and included 10 million US secondary school pupils. The study found that learning achievement fell by 1% for every 0.55°C increase to the average temperature. Any temperature exceeding 21°C was found to have a significant impact on learning, with anything above 32°C having even more of an effect. The effect of heat on learning was found to be particularly high at temperatures over 38°C.

The study also outlined that high temperatures only impacted exam scored on hot school days – hot weekends didn’t have an impact on achievement levels. Heat did affect educational time however, both at school and at home during homework time.

University challenges

Building on this, another study by Harvard University examined the effects of heat on students living in university accommodation. The study looked at university students during a heatwave – some stayed in rooms with air-conditioning and others stayed in rooms without. Ultimately, the students who stayed in the non-air-conditioned rooms were found to have scored much lower in both problem solving and memory tests.

The effects of heat aren’t limited to daylight hours, however – too much heat at night can also cause problems.

Trouble sleeping

During the UK summer heatwave of 2018, the Guardian reported an increase in sleep problems across the country. The sudden rise in temperature for a country so used to milder climates caused many people to feel irritable, tired, and less productive as a result.

Sleep medicine consultant Dr Michal Farquhar spoke to the Guardian spoke to the Guardian about the problem, stating 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.”

He went on to explain how the ideal temperature for sleeping is rather restrictive at just 16-18°C, so a sudden temperature rise can cause a number of issues for many people – both at work and at school.

Cooling down

With the effects of climate change becoming more and more apparent, many of us are asking what we can do to help students overcome the heat.

Both Harvard University and the US National Bureau of Economic Research recommend using a good air conditioning unit in educational facilities, such as exam halls and classrooms. 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. Historically, this makes a lot of sense, 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.

The National Education Union recommend that UK schools should have an action plan in place should temperatures exceed 26°C. 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.