How does the menstrual cycle influence girls’ academic performance? The Dutch Peter Noort of Kennisrotonde (‘the knowledge roundabout’, a support service for educational staff in the Netherlands) did some secondary research to answer this teacher’s question. Spoiler: why exactly the biology teacher asked this in the first place is probably more surprising than the actual answer. Because what was the reason? Are the girls in her class more difficult at certain moments? Or is something else going on?
Let’s start with the results of Kennisrotonde’s research. Nearly all women occasionally have menstrual troubles. No surprise there. In 8-81% of the women, these complaints are annoying and consequent enough to be classified as premenstrual syndrome (PMS); whereas 2-50% suffers from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). The huge variation between these percentages is due to the various studies, which were held among different age groups and used different definitions. On average, between 10 and 25% of all menstruating women have either PMS or PMDD.
It seems quite logical that PMS-symptoms like mood swings, irritability, dizziness, fatigue and pain can influence your daily life, and thus that your menstrual cycle affects your academic performance. However, the problem is that hardly any specific research has been done among school girls. Even worse: until recent it was believed that menstrual complaints apart from a painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea) happened less frequently among adolescents.
8-15% of girls stay at home because of (pre)menstrual complaints
When investigating how the menstrual cycle influences academic performance, it’s important to differentiate between the phases of the cycle: follicular (before the ovulation) and luteal (before the menstruation). It’s also of importance to distinguish between having healthy cycles and suffering from PMS/PMDD.
A lot of women notice mood swings in the luteal phase, but a significant increase in low mood symptoms was only found in women with PMS. Of the school girls, 8-15% would incidentally or regularly stay at home because of (pre)menstrual complaints. Another study indicated a relation between staying home from school or work and the amount of pain/discomfort experienced during the menstruation. Research into the influence of the menstrual cycle on performance produced mixed results. Some studies indicated that women perform worse just before their menstruation, possibly because of hormone concentrations or menstrual pain. Another study found there was no or hardly any difference in cognitive functioning during the different phases of the cycle, no matter if the women suffered from PMDD or not.
Better at map reading during your menstruation
It’s known that gender influences certain achievements. Generally speaking, women are verbally superior, while men have a better spatial awareness. However, changing hormone levels during the menstrual cycle seem to influence this. Simplified: during their menstrual phase, women for example perform better in tasks that are usually dominated by men (like map reading). This probably has to do with the lower concentration of female hormones. Hormonal changes during the cycle are very likely linked to cognitive functioning. This can have both positive and negative implications.
Conclusion: even though not enough research has been done among the target audience (school girls), it’s crystal clear that psychological and physical changes before and during the menstruation influence the daily life. Most women with a normal and healthy cycle probably won’t be bothered too much by the negative effects of this influence. However, women suffering from PMS/PMDD show a clear deterioration in their cognitive functions during the premenstrual phase. Premenstrual complaints, just like pain and absence, hinder social functioning.
How the menstrual cycle affects… the teacher
But now the crucial question: why did the biology teacher want to know this? Are her students behaving differently during their cycles? Are they more difficult at certain moments? Do they perform worse? No, there’s something else going on here. Her deadpan answer to Period! Magazine: ‘Now it doesn’t bother me anymore, I realised that my employers could have tracked my menstrual cycle from the start of my employment. They only had to look at the amount of students I removed from class… When becoming aware of this, I wondered how much it bothered girls, apart from tummy pain. To my surprise I couldn’t find any scientific information about this, so I asked Kennisrotonde. My intent? To create some more awareness about this subject. So that maybe in the near future some serious research will be done.’
Want to know more?
Kennisrotonde is an online support service for educational staff in the Netherlands. Read the entire research report (in Dutch), with a list of all the literature that was consulted to answer the question, here.