Better Teaching Through the Psychology of Time

13 Mar 2019 1:03 PM | Anonymous

By David Kreiner, Ph.D., University of Central Missouri

On a cosmological level, time may be infinite, but we constantly run out of it in our daily lives. I have seen students and faculty struggle with it. I have certainly experienced it myself:

  • When my class time is up but I haven’t finished everything I wanted to.
  • When I’m planning a 16-week class and there’s just not enough time.
  • When I thought I could finish a draft of a paper in one afternoon but I didn’t even get close.

Similarly, your students may:

  • have trouble meeting course deadlines;
  • fail to use effective study methods because they don’t have enough time;
  • be unrealistic about allocating time for the different components of a major project;
  • or find that they are about to graduate before they had a chance to accomplish all their goals.

I propose that we look to the rich literature on the psychology of time in the same way that we have looked to the science of learning for more effective studying and teaching methods. I will describe one example to illustrate what I mean, but there is much more out there. If only we had time to explore it all!

Kahneman and Tversky (1979) defined the planning fallacy as a tendency to underestimate how much time we need to complete larger tasks and overestimate the time we need for smaller tasks. We tend to be confident in these estimates – confident, but wrong (Buehler, Griffin, & Peetz, 2010). Think about how this affects your plans for a large project like your thesis or dissertation. Also think about how your students might struggle with finishing a project on time, or why they might run out of time and submit work that is less than their best.

Fortunately, there is research on how to estimate more accurately how much time it will take to do something. One strategy is to avoid anchoring effects, in this case anchoring on the present when making a time estimate. LeBouef and Shafir (2009) found that people could make better estimates if they identified a future date at which they thought they would finish instead of estimating how many days from now.

Another way to make more accurate time forecasts is to consider how much time similar tasks took in the past (König, Wirz, Thomas, & Weidmann, 2015). It also helps to think about possible obstacles that can cause delays (Buehler et al., 2010). When your student is estimating that she can knock out that paper in three hours, she may not be considering possible interruptions, technology issues, or finding out that the key article she needs is not available full-text.

Imagining from the perspective of an observer can also improve accuracy (Buehler et al., 2010). What would your friend say about your plan to complete the literature review of your dissertation in one week?

We might ask whether making better time estimates is that important. It doesn’t speed anything up or save time, right? But if our estimates are inaccurate, we will make mistakes in budgeting our time. Other things may fall through the cracks – sleep, for example – which could affect our well-being and success. One way to improve our relationship with time is to get a better handle on how much time we need. The research suggests that we can get better at it.

At the upcoming APS-STP Teaching Institute, I will share a few other examples of how we can make use of the literature on the psychology of time. I hope to see you there …. if you can find the time!


Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Peetz, J. (2010). The planning fallacy: Cognitive, motivational, and social origins.  In P.Z. Mark & M.O. James (Eds.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 43, pp. 1-62). New York, NY: Academic Press. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2601 (10)43001-4

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures. TIMS Studies in Management Science, 12, 313-327.

König, C.J., Wirz, A., Thomas, K.E., & Weidmann, R.Z. (2015). The effects of previous misestimation of task duration on estimating future task duration. Current Psychology, 34(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1007/s12144-014-9236-3

LeBouef, R.A., & Shafir, E. (2009). Anchoring on the “here” and “now” in time and distance judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. doi: 10.1037/a0013665

David S. Kreiner is Professor and Chair of the School of Nutrition, Kinesiology, and Psychological Science at the University of Central Missouri, where he has taught since 1990. He earned his B.A. in Psychology and Ph.D. in Human Experimental Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He has taught courses including General Psychology, Orientation to Psychology, Research Design & Analysis I & II, History of Psychology, Advanced Statistics, Cognitive Psychology, and Sensation & Perception.  His research interests include language processing, memory, and the teaching of psychology.  He often collaborates with students on research projects and has coauthored publications and conference presentations with undergraduate and graduate students. 

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