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Learning to the Rhythm

This week’s blog comes from Learning Designer Steve Myerscough, who looks at the affect the body’s circadian rhythm has on learning.

I was interested to read recently that tens of thousands of teenagers will soon be getting an extra hour in bed thanks to a study into how sleep affects learning. The study, led by Oxford University, will test the theory that teenagers begin functioning properly two hours later than adults. Scientists believe that teenagers are hardwired to want to go to sleep at around midnight and not feel fully awake until 10am. Speaking as a former teenager who was averse to mornings, I can certainly believe this is true.

The study is based on the science of circadian rhythm– the body’s daily pattern of sleepiness and alertness. It influences when you tend to feel tired in the day and when you feel at your best. It’s also the reason you get jet lag when you move time zones and why you don’t simply get progressively more tired throughout the day.

Though each individual’s natural rhythm will vary – for example, some of us are classed as ‘night owls’, others ‘morning larks’ – there are general patterns that tend to affect us all. For instance, most of us suffer from a dip in alertness just after lunch before reaching our highest level of alertness in the evening. Circadian rhythm also has a physical effect – if you want to exercise, try doing it just after work when your body is said to be at its physical best.

The schools involved in the study aren’t the first to change their timetable to improve learning. A previous pilot project similar to the Oxford University study had a notably positive impact on exam results. Speaking from personal experience, I can remember when my secondary school even pushed lunch break back by an hour as it was felt that students learned better before lunch. So, with schools thinking carefully about when their learning is delivered, should we also be thinking about when learning is delivered in our companies?

Circadian rhythm suggests that training sessions just after lunch aren’t a great idea, when many will be suffering from a dip in alertness. However, the time and extent of this dip will vary between individuals thanks to their own unique rhythm. The solution could be to allow learners to access learning whenever they want.

This is one of the many benefits of e-learning – giving the learner control over when they choose to access learning. Mobile learning can even extend these potential learning periods outside of the normal working hours. This allows learners to access learning whenever and wherever they like. For some this may mean completing some learning just before going on their lunch break. Other ‘night owls’ may choose to complete the learning on their own mobile device in the evening. By understanding their own rhythm they could help to improve their own learning.

Of course, the effect of circadian rhythm on learning is largely unproven which is why many will be interested to see the results of the Oxford University study. As individuals, we can even do our own studies – are there regular periods in the day when you feel more alert than others? Are there other periods where you feel a dip? By understanding our own rhythm we may be able to help ourselves to achieve more both mentally and physically.

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