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Conversation #85: David Kreiner on the Science of Time

A conversation between David Kreiner (University of Central Missouri) and Elizabeth Yost Hammer (XULA) on the science of time.

Headshot of David KreinerDavid Kreiner is Chair of the School of Nutrition, Kinesiology, and Psychological Science at the University of Central Missouri, where he has been on the faculty since 1990. He completed a B.A. in Psychology and Ph.D. in Human Experimental Psychology at the University of Texas-Austin. He teaches courses in General Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, and Advanced Statistics. Research interests include cognitive psychology, particularly in language processing and memory, as well as scholarship on the teaching of psychology. He often collaborates with students on research projects and has co-authored publications and conference presentations with undergraduate and graduate students.


Elizabeth Yost Hammer is the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a Kellogg Professor in Teaching in the Psychology Department. She received her Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Tulane University. She regularly teaches Introductory Psychology, Research Methods, and Freshman Seminar. Her research interests focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning, and she has contributed chapters to several books intended to enhance teaching preparation including The Handbook of the Teaching of Psychology. She is a co-author of the textbook, Psychology Applied to Modern Life. Dr. Hammer is a past-president of Psi Chi (the International Honor Society in Psychology), and served as Chief Reader for Advanced Placement Psychology. Her work in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching includes organizing pedagogical workshops and faculty development initiatives. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, and the Professional and Organizational Developers Network.

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EYH: Hello, my name is Elizabeth Yost Hammer and I am the director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana. My guest today is Dr. David Kreiner. He is the chair for the school of Nutrition, Kinesiology--help me say that David--

DK: That’s right.

EYH: Alright and Psychological Science at the University of Central Missouri, where he has been on the faculty since 1990. He completed his B.A in psychology and Ph.D. in Human Experimental Psychology at the University of Texas-Austin. He teaches courses in General Psychology, Cognitive Psych, and Advanced Statistics. Research interests include Cognitive Psychology, particularly in language processing and memory, as well as scholarship on the teaching of psychology. He often collaborates with students on research projects and has co-authored publications and conference presentations with undergraduate and graduate students.

Dave, thank you very much for giving me your time today. 

DK: Thanks for inviting me to be on the podcast. I’m excited about it

EYH: As you know, I saw you speak at a recent conference and you were making the argument that as teachers and as people who are enhancing student success we’re really good at harnessing the science of learning and using the science of learning to enhance students’ success. You’re making the argument that we could also use the science of time to help our students. So, I wonder if you would just tell me a little about what that means. How did you even come up with that idea?

DK: Sure, so the idea of the science of learning is not a new one and I’ve been really inspired to see all of the progress in educators learning about and helping their students to learn about things like retrieval practice and distributive practice. Those kinds of things that aid learning and I love to see that, but it occurred to me that there is a rich literature on how we understand and think about time that also is really relevant to student success and also faculty success and it may be something that is obvious to everybody, but I don’t think so, because I don’t hear a lot of people  talking about it. So, I’m really...It’s kind of grandiose, but I’m trying to start a movement...something like the science of learning, I don’t know, maybe we call it the science of time, in terms of applying it to teaching and learning. And I got to thinking why did I not think of this earlier? It seems so obvious, but for me it was several threads that came together over a number of years, really. One was as I know you do, and many of our colleagues do, I often go to conferences and I look for ideas about teaching, that’s really what I focus on and I see so many great resources that are available, fantastic ideas that I can use in my teaching and then I always come back and I’m thinking well, I don’t always have the time to learn how to do that or I don’t have the time in my 50 minute class period to do everything and so obviously, we’re limited by time. Another one of these threads that put this together is just my experience in teaching over the past almost thirty years now and seeing students who are really successful and students who are less successful, and I typically tell prospective students...I talk to students a lot at orientation when they come in, the key to your success is not so much how smart you are, because you’re smart enough and that’s why you’re here, you’re smart enough to be successful. The distinction that I’ve noticed is how wisely you use your time. So, I’ve been really impressed at seeing some students who have multiple commitments, they’re super busy, but they always get stuff on time. They’re able to use their time super efficiently. I’ve seen other students who are obviously really bright, but they sort of flounder, because they don’t make good choices about their use of time. That’s kind of the second thread. And the third is some of the research that I’ve done anyway in memory and research about teaching, I’ve noticed just in retrospect had some components of time to it, and so I thought, well time seems to be this common thread through all of this, why can’t we start looking at this literature on time and using it to our advantage as teachers.

EYH: Well, I just love that, I loved that when I first heard you talking about this and I’m also really glad that you mentioned that it's not just applicable to students, but it’s applicable to instructors and faculty as well. I see when I’m working with new faculty, particularly, people who thrive because they can manage time really well, and balance out all of their responsibilities. And people who struggle and have a really hard time. I think that a lot of what you talk about will be applicable to both. Now, I know that when you think about this, you’re going beyond so let’s do a time management workshop in freshman orientation, and you’ve really divided it into these three research areas that have been looked at in the science of time. So, I wonder if we can unpack each one of those. I know the first one that you talked about is estimating time, how do we do our estimations of time and so, how do you see that, what do you know about that? How can you apply that to success?

DK: Sure, so let me mention a couple of things about the research on how we estimate time. Things that the research shows is that we are not very good at estimating how much time we need to do something. We’re actually better at estimating how much time has passed, then we are at figuring out how much time we need in the future to finish some type of task like a project or something. When I read that, I kind of thought back to you know, my own ability to estimate time and it sort rang true, because I remember when I was in high school, I worked bagging groceries at a local grocery store which was not the most thrilling job for me. But, I remember thinking, you know let me play a game where I am not going to look at the clock, but I’m going to guess how much time has passed. And I got to be pretty good at it. You know, I would think I bet it’s right around 5:15, I’ll look at the clock and it’s 5:14 and I’m like oh yeah, I nailed it. Most of us are pretty good in retrospect even without looking at your cell phone, your watch, or a clock at how much time has gone by, but there is a lot of research to show that we have systematic errors in how we estimate how much time we need to complete something. Like you have an assignment that you have to turn in, or your student has an assignment for class and typically what the research shows is if there is a fairly large size project, we’re likely to underestimate how much time we need. So, you think about that student who’s got an assignment that is due next week, and the student is, we hope, planning how to use time over that week to get it done and get it turned in. The student may think well this is going to take me three hours, I’ll do that Thursday night before the assignment is due. The research shows that student is probably underestimating how much time it’s actually going to take. And then you think about the consequences of that, right? So, if we’re underestimating how much time we need, what happens? We run out of time, either you don’t get it turned in, and there may be academic consequences for that. There probably are, you don’t get the credit or you’ll get a late penalty or you turn it in and it’s not your best work, because you ran out of time to actually complete the assignment the way you wanted to. So, I think that’s really interesting, there’s this concept in the literature that actually goes back to Tversky and Kahneman about the planning fallacy which is essentially what I’ve said is that we tend to underestimate how much time we need to complete something. And another thing that is really interesting about that to me is when we make those estimates about future time, we tend to be really confident in them. We think we’re right, even though based on past experience, we should know we keep making these mistakes over and over thinking we’re going to get something done, and then we run out of time. 

EYH: Absolutely, and what kind of solutions, what would you put in place to help students kind of deal with this?

DK: Yeah, so there’s actually some really good evidence-based practices, most of which are pretty simple, that the research suggests can help us and our students make more accurate estimates. I think it’s really just a matter of learning again of us kind of like science of learning again as educators learning about these techniques, getting the word out to students, encouraging our students to use them. So I’ll give you a couple of examples of some of these techniques in terms of estimating how much time you really need for something. One of the things in the literature shows is that we’re better at estimating how much time it will take somebody else to complete a task than we are at estimating for ourselves. So, one of the things that has been tested in the literature is giving people a very simple instruction, and that is you have this task to complete, I want you to imagine from the perspective of an observer how much time it will take to complete, so don’t think about how much time it will take you to complete that task, think about what somebody else would say. So for a student, we might translate that to say okay you have this assignment that is due next week, think about what your teacher would say about how much time you need, or what your friend would say about how much time you need or what would your mom say about that, and the research shows that people tend to be more realistic when they think about it from the perspective of an observer. So, that’s not a hard thing to do, it’s just that we don’t necessarily know how to do that. We tend to think about our own experience, and not about taking that sort of third-person perspective. Another thing, it’s kind of similar and it’s quite simple, really, is to think about the possible obstacles that make the project take longer to complete. Think about the things that can cause delay. The research shows that when we’re thinking about how much time we need for something, we tend to think about the steps we need to do to complete the task which on the surface makes sense, right? So, the student’s thinking well I have this paper to do, what I’d need to do, I need to go do my lit search, I need to read those articles, I need to write up summaries, I need to make a draft and so on, and they think about how much time they need for each step. Those estimates, may be reasonably accurate. But, what they’re not taking into account is what could go wrong, right? So, I couldn’t find that article full-text. Now I have to figure out how to get that article. Someone interrupted me in that 2 hour span that I was planning on writing up my first draft. So, this simple manipulation has been shown in the literature to help in terms of people making more accurate estimates. You simply instruct people, explicitly think about the things that can go wrong, think about the things that could cause delay, and take those into account when you’re estimating your time. People make more realistic estimates when they do that.

EYH: That is absolutely right, and I mean you have to factor in I might get a cold, I might get a migraine. There might be a family emergency, and you’re right, those are two really easy things that don’t take up any time in the classroom that you can really implement. Let’s move to the second category of research that you draw on which is so once you estimate your time, now how do you allocate it? Allocating time wisely. What do you know about that?

DK: Yeah, so that relates more to time management skills; you made the point that in my conference presentation I was emphasizing that really I’m not just focused on time management skills like having students go to a time management workshop, that’s important, but that’s not the extent of what the literature is on the psychology of time that I think is relevant. So, in terms of research on how we make these decisions on how we allocate the time, one of the things that’s really interesting is just how important time management skill is. So, when you think about time management skills, we tend to think about things like how good we are at planning. Right, how good we are at organizing and prioritizing. Those are important aspects of time management skill, but I thought it was interesting in the literature when they measured time management skill, they often use an instrument that has a component that has to do with sense of control of time, so you’re feeling that you actually in control of your time. That seems to be really important in time management. That’s something that I kind of keyed on. And the point that I want to make is there seems to be a connection there between our feeling in control of our time and the work that Dweck has done on mindsets, right? So, if you have a fixed mindset about being in control of time and you feel like you’re not in control, and there’s nothing you can do about it, then things just happen and you see everything as outside your control. That makes it hard to effectively use your time. So, what I want to suggest is what if we encourage people, just like how we encourage people about their ability to learn, you can change how you manage your time. It’s not a fixed thing. You can get better at time management. And, if we can do that, and kind of overcome that growth [sic] mindset, I think people can get much better at it...Students and faculty. I also thought it was really interesting in the literature, there’s quite a bit that was done on the relationship between time management and academic success. So, this surprised me a little bit, I don’t know if it will surprise you or our listeners at all. Time management skill is actually a better predictor of college student grade point average than intelligence. That doesn’t surprise me that much based on my own observations, but it still is impressive to me. Time management skill is also a better predictor of college student gpa than how much time they spent studying. 

EYH: Wow

DK: So, it’s not how smart you are alone. it’s not even how much time you’re devoting to your studies alone, it’s how good you are at managing your time and again, the point I would like to emphasize is let’s teach our students that they can get better at that, that they’re not just poor time managers, but that they can overcome whatever deficiencies they might have and how they make decisions about their use of time.

EYH: So, moving from that fixed mindset to the growth mindset. And listeners who might not  not be familiar with Dwek’s mindset, we’ll put a link to her work for this podcast. Do you have a concrete tip for instructors about how they can do that in class, like what’s one of the things they can do to move them from fixed to growth when it comes to time.

DK: Yeah,  you know I would actually like to see some research on a lot of these techniques, how they’re actually applied in classes and in the classroom and how effective they are, but I think one of the things that we may try, in terms of working with our students on this is to do some kind of short-term demonstration with them. To show them that they actually can improve their use of time, so maybe to have your students make a schedule and indicate what times they’re going to do which academic thing. And actually apply that, maybe come back to class the next time, and maybe they can have some kind of discussion about what changed, how much better did I do because I actually actively organized my time?

EYH: Yeah, I imagine there’s some research that needs to be done, but there’s some concrete things that she’s done with the mindset that can be applied too. Let’s shift to the third category, which is one of my favorites. Proscriptive [sic] memory, which is remembering to remember to do stuff

DK: Right. 

EYH: Remembering to do the things you need to do in the future. Let’s talk about that for a minute.

DK: Yeah, sure, so it’s exactly what you said. Prospective memory is our ability to remember to carry out some intended action in the future. It’s another one of those things that to me seems like it should be so obvious to be applicable to teaching and learning, but I don’t know if enough has been done in terms of us as teachers applying it. So, you think about how prospective memory may relate to things like student success. Students, and I actually did a research project with this a few years ago with some students. Students will report that they forget to do things that they meant to do. Teachers will do this too, we forget to do things we meant to do, right? 

EYH: Never, that’s never happened to me.

DK: Yeah, never happened to you, but everybody else. That student may have a quiz coming up, and have an intention that they’re going to spend a certain amount of time studying for it, but then they get distracted by other things and they don’t do it. And, you may have experienced it, and I certainly seen it. Students show up for class, and they’re like oh yeah there’s a quiz today, I meant to study for that, and they’re very panicked and stressed because they’re unprepared, they forgot to do what they intended to do. They may forget to bring things to class that they need for something going on in class that day. Prospective memory can also relate to remembering not to do something that you’ve remember to stop doing or that you’ve intended to stop doing. So, an example that I like to think about from an instructor’s point of view is every time I teach a class, there’s something where I think oh, that didn’t go that well, I’m not going to do that next time I teach this same class, right? But, then I’m teaching the class next semester, the next year, and I’m in the habit of using that example that didn’t work well before, and I forget to stop using it. So, that’s also a prospective memory error. It’s pretty clear to me that prospective memory is related to our success as teachers and our students success as learners, and like these other examples in terms of time, there are some fairly simple things that we can do if we know about it to improve our ability to remember to carry out some intended action.

EYH: Thank you, thank you so much! Can you give me some concrete examples of that we can do? 

DK: Sure, so a couple of things, really quick, that again are pretty simple things we can do. One is to specify the context in which you plan to carry something out. So, this is what’s known in the prospective memory literature as a specific implementation intention. So if a student has an intention like I’m going to study for that quiz. That’s not likely to help them remember to actually study for the quiz, because it’s too vague, but if they come up with a specific context like when I get back to my dorm room, after dinner tonight, I’m going to spend the next hour studying for the quiz, that simple change is more likely to result in the student remembering to actually do that studying. So, specifying the context where you intend to carry out an action. Another tip for prospective memory has to do with the type of cue that we use to remind us to do something, so the classic cue I don’t know that if students now think about this, but the classic cue is the string around your finger, right?

EYH: Yeap

DK: The problem with that is that it’s not specific to the action that you need to remember, and if you use it all the time, it becomes a familiar cue.The research shows that the cues that are more likely to effectively remind you are things that are unfamiliar that you haven’t used for everything under the sun and also that are task-relevant. So, the things that will remind you of the specific things that you need to do. So, an example might be that student who wants to remember to study for that quiz after dinner tonight, so maybe what they do is get that textbook for that class, so that’s a task-relevant cue and they put it in an unusual location where they’re sure to notice it. So, maybe they take their textbook and they put it next to their bathroom sink. And, then they go in there and they’re thinking why is this textbook here? Oh, yeah, I need to study for that quiz tonight, that sort of unfamiliar, what we call a focal cue that’s much more likely to successfully remind you to do what you intended to do.

EYH: I’m thinking about how to apply this to faculty alike for next semester, because that happens to me all the time. In the heat of the moment in the class, I’m like oh okay, this demo did not work, or this activity did not work, then the next semester I’m teaching the class and I’m like oh yeah remember this didn’t work, and I forget in between to take it out, so I thought, okay, I need to take notes in the class, and I’ll lose the notes, or put a sticky. How would you something like that for that kind of remembering to remember, you know something that is longer than I need to study tonight and I need to remember something six months from now? Or three months from now?

DK: Great question, so some of the research on prospective memory shows that a key aspect is decreasing the delay between you think of something and when you plan for doing it. And, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it right away, like in this example, it may be a year before I teach that class again, but I should make the plan for changing what I’m doing right away as soon as possible. So, here’s an example of how you might do that. So, you just got out of class and you’re thinking, oh I’m not going to use that example next year when I teach the same class. And you said you might do a sticky, or make a note, and I do the same thing. I just keep a little file where I’ll make a note right after class. Make some kind of specific plan for how you’re actually going to make that change. So, what you might do is right after that class where you recognize you want to make that change, then you put the calendar alert if you use those. So, you put the calendar alert---

EYH: ---That’s a great idea  

DK: For when you expect to teach the class the next time, maybe it’s before the semester or maybe it’s the week you expect to do it and you just do a little calendar alert that says remember, make that change in that lesson today.

EYH: That’s a great idea, using calendar alerts or where you can email yourself in the future, or those kinds of things. So, great idea.

DK: Right

EYH: Thank you, so much. It’s funny we’re talking about time. I really appreciate your time in this. I know that you ended your presentation with an actual call to action to those of us that are interested in doing research on teaching and learning. So, I wonder if you want to end today with your call to action.

DK: I would love to do that, so I’m actually pretty early in this process. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading the existing literature thinking about how it would apply to education. My call to action is really let’s do the same thing with the psychology of time that we’ve done with the science of learning. And, there’s no reason why we can’t do that. There’s lots of literature out there, so let’s look at what that literature says, and start figuring out how to do we apply this to ourselves and our lives as educators? How do we teach our students to do that? Let’s do some research where we show that it’s actually effective in the classroom. Let’s figure out where we need more research done that hasn’t been done yet on how the psychology of time applies to education. And I think if we do that, again, maybe it's a little grandiose, but I think we can have a similar impact on education to what we’re doing with the science of learning. And that would be fabulous, and I’m just calling out to everybody; think about this and see if there’s something that you can do to contribute to this movement to apply psychology of time to teaching and learning. 

EYH: Well, Dave, thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed speaking with you.

DK: Thanks for inviting me; it was fun. 

EYH: My guest today is Dr. David Kreiner and he has been speaking on applying the science of time to teaching and learning. If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe to this podcast and don’t forget to rate us.

Transcript by Rebecca Kebbeh.

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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