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Deadlines and working memory: A double-edged sword

Deadlines and working memory: A double-edged sword

3 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • Stress management & well-being

Students are constantly meeting deadlines, whether that be finishing homework, coursework or revision in time. But do deadlines actually help students stay on track and motivated, or does it result in them rushing everything at the last minute?

One important factor to consider in all of this is our working memory. Due to its limited capacity, deadlines can help us remember to complete the task before we forget about it. However, there are drawbacks to this, as it can lead us to prioritise the wrong things.

Let’s take a look at what our working memory is and why we should keep this in mind when setting deadlines…

What is working memory?

Working memory is where information is stored and processed in the short term. It is very limited and can only store around 7 things at a time (though some researchers puts this number even lower, at about 3-4 items). Too much new information presented at one time can cause a cognitive overload, making it difficult for students to concentrate and complete the task at hand, as well as learn the information they’re working on for the long term. 

The benefits of having deadlines

To find out whether a deadline helped people stay on task, researchers sent out vouchers for the dentist to participants with a short, long or no use-by date. They then recorded how many people used the vouchers and found that:

  • Participants who were given a deadline were more likely to use it compared to those with no deadline.
  • Those with shorter deadlines showed the greatest response.

Therefore, this suggests that deadlines not only have a positive influence on performance, but shorter deadlines are more useful than longer deadlines. This links with other research that found that deadlines can help students overcome the Planning Fallacy (and as such, manage their workload better).

But why else may deadlines help? Well, due to our limited working memory, deadlines can help us focus on the task before we forget it. This is also the reason why shorter deadlines are more effective. It is also useful in providing implicit incentives, encouraging students to plan and structure their timing more effectively. 

Equip your school staff with the skills to best support their students’ well-being and stress management in the lead up to exams.

The drawbacks to setting deadlines

The main drawback of deadlines is caused by the “Mere Urgency Effect”.

To explain this effect, it is important to highlight the difference between important and urgent tasks. Important tasks matter in relation to the goal we want to achieve, whereas urgent tasks have a time limit. Based on this, tasks can be divided into four main parts:

  • Important and urgent
  • Important but not urgent
  • Not urgent but important
  • Not urgent and not important
Eisenhower matrix

Usually, people will give their priority to the important and urgent tasks and leave the not urgent and not important tasks to the end. But if they have to choose between an urgent and an important task, which do they prioritise?

In one study, researchers found that people tend to prioritise urgent but not important tasks over those that are important but not urgent. Therefore, any task that requires a deadline will affect how students organise their time, as they will give priority to this.

But why is this? Well, our limited working memory is to blame again. Our attention is often pulled towards deadlines, therefore giving more priority to this task.

Final thoughts

So, should we be setting deadlines or not?

Well, according to the research, deadlines help students pay attention and increase the likelihood that they will complete a task. This is even more effective with short deadlines.

However, it is worth considering setting these deadlines for the important tasks. If the task is not important but has a deadline, students might shift their focus on this task when they should be completing a more important but non-urgent task.

So, like many things in education, it depends. Keep the bigger picture in mind, make a clear distinction between what is urgent and what is important, and know what you expect from a task you set your students, and this should help you choose when and how to set deadlines.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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