Higher temperatures impact our ability to learn

Sigurd Lerkerød Alnes
June 5, 2018

A recent study from Harvard researcher Joshua Goodman and colleagues show that performance on the PSAT, a test primarily measuring reading and math abilities, are negatively impacted by higher air temperatures during the school year. Test performance is predictive of the ability to gain knowledge within the mentioned fields, suggesting higher temperatures have a detrimental effect on cognitive abilities. The research is also relevant outside the classroom settings, as all of us are involved in processes requiring us to take in and work on new information every day.

The research

To test the assumption that temperatures impact performance, the scores of students retaking the PSAT test was compared to the score they received the first time they took the test. Average temperature on school days the year prior to taking the test, first and second time respectively, was included as a predictor.

The scores of roughly 10 million U.S. high-school students that took the PSAT two times in different years between 2001 and 2014 were included in the analysis. After controlling for confounding variables, the researchers found that there was a correlation between temperature difference in the respective years prior to the test sessions and scoring worse on the PSAT. The correlation was negative, meaning that an increase in temperature was associated with a decrease in test score. The effect was even greater for students in schools lacking air conditioning.

Each one degree F increase in average temperature on school days during one year reduced the amount learned by one percent.

Goodman and colleagues did, as mentioned, base their analysis on temperature data from school days. They also examined the impact of average temperature on weekends and public holidays. The latter two had no effect on scores. This suggests it was in fact the temperature when in school, while students were studying, that impacted their performance.

Further analysis revealed that each one degree F increase in average temperature on school days during one year reduced the amount learned by one percent. Considering only temperature when in school affected performance, it appears likely that the one percent decrease in amount learned is directly linked to each one degree F increase in temperature. Students thus learn significantly less at school when the temperature is higher.

What the research tells us

Apart from showing the importance of controlling temperature in school environments to facilitate optimal learning, the research alludes to how temperatures impact all of us. Workplaces should make sure that temperatures are kept at a comfortable level to make sure the employees are able to process information at full capacity. Being weary of the temperature in the home is also important, as students often do homework at home, and many of us engage in one or more forms of learning activities in our spare time.

Taking control of your temperature

An important first step in the process of taking control of the temperature is to measure it. Here at Airthings, we have developed solutions for both larger buildings such as schools and workplaces as well as for households.

Larger buildings can make good use of the Airthings Wave Plus, which in addition to temperature, measures volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide, radon, humidity, and air pressure. Similarly to temperature, carbon dioxide has been associated with lower cognitive performance 2 and radon has been linked to an increased likelihood of lung cancer 3. Several Wave Plus devices can be linked to a single Airthings Hub over longer distances indoors, allowing for seamless monitoring of all measurements from several devices. The data can be accessed online through the Airthings Dashboard and via API access, making it easy for building managers take control.

Homeowners can also make use of the Airthings Dashboard, which works with the Airthings Wave. The Wave measures temperature, humidity, and air pressure. The Wave Plus and Hub can also be installed in homes. In addition to accessing the data through the Dashboard, it is also readily accessible through our app for both Android and iOS.