Mark Mon-Williams answered on 15 May 2015:
I don’t work in this area (neuropharmacology) so my answer is just based on a case study… me!
But perhaps a few points to make regarding your question:
(i) It’s worth separating ‘performance’ from ‘learning’. My personal experience is that a bit of caffeine helps me perform better (e.g. concentrate on understanding the methodology reported in a paper I am reading in the morning). This tends to improve my learning. It may be that caffeine also improves my neural plasticity and so accelerates the ‘learning process’ – but this would be a different mechanism by which caffeine is affecting my brain.
(ii) There is always an issue when moving between different ‘levels of description’. There may or may not be laboratory evidence for caffeine affecting neural learning processes (I simply don’t know this field) but there is a big gap between establishing some laboratory based effects and the implications for these observed effects within a real world environment (where you need to control for the myriad of other factors that affect something as complicated as educational learning). It would require a large scale epidemiological study or RCT experimental design to try and find out the impact of caffeine on some defined real world outcome (such as educational attainment). I’m certainly not aware of any decent studies that have addressed these issues in this way.
(iii) It follows from the above that I wouldn’t be confident about advising students about their levels of caffeine consumption with regard to the effects of the drug on their learning capacity. I would be happy to share my personal experiences with them – and explain that I’ve always found drinking lots of caffeine to be ultimately unproductive (I get too jittery and don’t sleep well if I drink too much). I provide the general advice to my own tutees that I’ve ultimately learned that waking myself up with caffeine is a very poor substitute for a decent night’s sleep!
Joseph Devlin answered on 16 May 2015:
Interesting question! There was a recent study in the US showing that the majority of children — including preschoolers — consume caffeine and that intake was highest in 12-19-y-olds (Ahluwalia et al. 2014). So it’s important to know what effect this has, if any, on learning. Evidence suggests that drinking a caffeinated drink acutely improved concentration, working memory, and sustained attention which led to faster maze learning times (Bruce et al 2014), consistent with Mark’s experience. A recent paper by Poole and colleagues (2015) looked at the effects of chronic caffeine consumption in pre-adolescent, adolescent, and adult mice during two types of learning: contextual learning (that depends on the hippocampus) and fear-conditioning (that does not depend on the hippocampus). They found that caffeine affected contextual learning but not fear conditioning. The effects depended on the levels of caffeine consumption — low levels actually enhanced this type of learning while higher levels impaired it. BTW, this was only in the young mice — caffeine had no effects on learning in the adults. These data suggest that caffeine affects the hippocampus during childhood & adolescence, while it is maturing, and this has knock-on effects on learning.
Assuming these studies are robust and replicate well (this isn’t my area so I don’t know), the advice I would give to school-aged kids would be to take it easy with caffeinated drinks. Some is ok but don’t overdo it.
Here are links to the three papers I mentioned. The Poole paper is particularly well written and interesting, IMHO.
Kathy Robinson answered on 16 May 2015:
It would be interesting to know why some students feel the need to consume large quantities of coffee. Looking at the ‘related questions’ we could ask them about their sleep behaviours ( i.e. amount and pattern) and diet to see if there are any correlations between these factors and coffee consumption. Anxiety about school performance is another factor that may be implicated.
If, for some students, it is sleep behaviour and they are consuming coffee so that they can stay awake or improve attention then maybe a good tactic would be to get them to read the THINK blog entry on teen sleep.
What environmental factors (that we can control) have been shown to negatively impact attention? I’m thinking things
What can you tell me about seating/grouping in classrooms? I’ve tried lots of different methods over the years and
At what age should children begin formal education? Is it the same age for literacy and maths? Are we actually harming
How strong is the evidence that a high protein meal helps students think / concentrate better ?
In a previous question, Catriona said that eating eggs and getting some omega 3 would be a good way to set yourself up
I am from Dubai and in my class many pupils are bilingual, trilingual and English is only spoken at school. What is
How can you tell how much the brain's development has been affected by the child's home life, e.g. diet, sleep,
I read that fish oils are supposed to help with brain function. Please could you explain how this works?
How do you feel about children spending more and more of their free time with virtual friends online?
Do you have a set of data for learning curve? We do the finger maze activity with students but wondered if you have
We have become increasingly a visual society and multimedia learning promotes a combination of textual and visual
How can we help pupils with exam stress? How can we help them remember Science equations etc? (1 Comment)
My friend is about to move to an international school in South Korea who this year are employing a ‘positive psychology (1 Comment)
I have twins (boy and girl) in year 8. They have the same family life but very different personalities. They are doing
How can we help pupils with exam stress? How can we help them remember Science equations etc? (1 comment)
Has mental health of pupils got worse, or is more reported? (1 comment)
My friend is about to move to an international school in South Korea who this year are employing a 'positive psychology (1 comment)
The 'redundancy effect' says that it is bad to read out the text of PowerPoint slides but the 'modality effect' says (2 comments)
Are there any edtech tools (online and physical) you could recommend for the classroom which promote growth mindset (1 comment)