The heat is on: female students perform better in warm exam rooms

Experiment that saw students take tests in temperatures ranging from 16ºC to 33ºC finds men appear to score highest in the cold

May 23, 2019
Source: Getty

Want to get your students to do better in exams? The answer may lie in the thermostat, according to a new study. However, there is a catch: while female students perform best in a warm exam room, men appear to prefer the cold.

Transatlantic researchers found that the temperature of an exam room affected the results of female and male students differently after conducting an experiment in which students were asked to sit tests in mathematics, verbal reasoning and cognitive reflection in environments that ranged from a chilly 16.1ºC to a sweltering 32.6ºC.

The study, by Agne Kajackaite, head of the ethics and behavioural economics research group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, and Tom Chang, associate professor of finance and business economics at the University of Southern California, was published in Plos One on 22 May.

Based on data for 542 Berlin students, the pair found that female students generally performed better on the maths and verbal tasks when the room was at the warmer end of the range, submitting more correct answers as well as more responses overall. Conversely, male students performed better at these tests in cooler temperatures – in warmer rooms, they submitted fewer correct answers, and fewer responses overall.

“At 16ºC women solve around eight maths problems and men solve 12, but when we are at very high temperatures they both solve around 10,” Dr Kajackaite explained.

The paper says that, for the maths paper, a 1ºC increase in temperature was associated with a 1.76 per cent increase in the number of questions correctly answered by women, and a 0.63 per cent decrease in the number of correct responses submitted by men.

For the verbal task, a temperature increase of 1ºC increased female performance by 1.03 per cent, and led to a 0.6 per cent decrease in male performance. The study found that temperature had no effect on the results of the cognitive reflection tests for either men or women.

The study’s findings potentially have implications not just for exam rooms but for gender-balanced workplaces and study spaces in general. Dr Kajackaite said that “what follows from the study is that the room temperature should be a little bit higher. Because the negative effect on men was small, but for women the positive effect is strong.”

“The ‘battle for the thermostat’ is not new: we know that women prefer higher temperatures than men. But we show it’s not just about comfort, it’s about women's cognitive ability,” Dr Kajackaite added.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Turn up the heat for higher scores

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