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Do students have a different perception of time?

Do students have a different perception of time?

3 min read
  • The science of learning

Why does it feel that sometimes students view time differently to the rest of us? Time is one of the most precious of commodities. Once it is spent, it can never be retrieved. We tell them that their GCSE or A-level years will go quickly, but often that fails to spur them into action. Could it be that this is because they have a different perception of time?

Perceptions of time and age

Have you ever thought about why time goes so much slower when you’re a child? Consider the following. For a forty year old adult, thinking about this time next year doesn’t seem too far away, as it is only 2.5% of their life to date. However, for a fifteen year old student, it is just under 7% of the life. The same unit of time feels very different to different generations.

One fascinating study compared young persons vs older persons abilities to estimate a 3-minute countdown. Results showed that the younger participants averaged an estimate of 3 minutes and 3 seconds, whereas adults averaged an estimate of 3 minutes and 40 seconds. It therefore appears that time really does move differently depending on your age.

Perceptions of time and working memory

Evidence has found that students with higher working memory perceive time to pass more quickly than those with low working memory. New research has shown that when asked to perform a maths task inside a 4 minute time interval, student’s with a low working memory capacity were more pre-occupied by the lack of time remaining, which subsequently hindered their maths performance. This means that students with poor working memory may be spending too much time focusing on the timing of their work, rather than exam content itself.

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Time-keeping and procrastination

Procrastination is extremely common. 75% of students consider themselves procrastinators, with 50% doing so regularly and to a level that is considered problematic. Part of this may be due to a phenomenon known as ‘The Planning Fallacy’, which states that people (and especially students) are not very good at accurately predicting how long a task will take. This results in them cramming a lot of their work just before a deadline, as time has run out.

Tips to improve time-keeping

  1. Set regular short deadlines – Managing your to do list into manageable chunks and setting goals can help sharpen focus and act as a call to action.
  2. Give yourself more time than you think you need – This will help overcome the planning fallacy.
  3. Focus on the task at hand – In the study above about working memory, focusing too much on the time remaining and not enough on the task led to a reduction in performance. It is good to find a balance between the two.

Final thoughts

Perhaps students will always view time differently to adults. We know that the teenage brain does not work the same way as the adult brain (a great example of this is in our blog about why teenagers get wet in the rain even if they have an umbrella). However, now that we know about these differences, we can plan and prepare them better. Deadlines, allowing for extra time and focusing on the task at hand seems to be a good way to avoid procrastination and to manage time more efficiently.

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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