Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

Time pressure: does it promote or interfere with learning?
Iroise Dumontheil

30 seconds left…. clap, clap, clap, clap, clap… put your pens down now. When I was between 11 and 14 years old, in my French hometown, our English teacher tested weekly our knowledge of irregular verbs. We had to revise, let’s say, 30 irregular verbs that week (building up over the course of the years); we would prepare a quarter of a sheet of A4 with three columns (infinitive, simple past, past participle); and then our teacher said aloud a list of 10 infinitives, we had to write all the past forms in 3 minutes and she would clap slowly to indicate that time was running out. This was quite a stressful experience, but thanks to her, I know my irregular verbs (mostly) and I do not have to spend a lot of time thinking about them when I am writing. Was the fact that this exercise was speeded really useful? Should she have left us more time? Did this approach benefit some students more than others? And would this approach work with most subject-specific content children learn at school?


I have been thinking of this issue in two different contexts recently. Online learning games often ask children to complete their task in a limited time, or they can receive a bonus reward if they respond correctly and quickly. A PhD student in my lab, Susanne de Mooij, has adapted an online arithmetic learning programme to study in a small group of participants whether individual differences in working memory (how much information one can keep in one’s mind and manipulate over a short time) and inhibitory control (the ability to resist impulses or distracting information) affected children’s responses in the presence or absence of time pressure. A better verbal working memory associated with better performance overall, while better inhibitory control associated with better performance in the absence of time pressure only. In addition, (younger) children with poorer inhibitory control looked more often at the different answer options, and at answer options representing operant confusion (e.g. 2x3 = 5) (article). This suggests that children with different cognitive profiles may be differentially affected by time pressure while carrying out educational tasks.


In a separate strand of research, we have been investigating which aspects of cognition may predict how well a child or adolescent is able to solve counterintuitive problems. These problems are common in mathematics (e.g. 1/5 is smaller than 1/2, even though 5 is larger than 2) and science (e.g. water is absorbed by plants’ roots even though it seems to fall on their leaves) and the intuitive response is difficult to overcome. Recent research has investigated the role of inhibitory control in helping children (and adults) overcome their first intuitive but incorrect response in favour of the correct response. Based on early work suggesting that imposing a delay could help children correctly inhibit dominant but incorrect responses, and results in adolescents suggesting better inhibitory control associates with slower responses to counterintuitive problems, a team at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience developed the Stop & Think intervention, to encourage primary school children to not rush into responding intuitively when they were solving maths and science problems. A large randomised controlled trial has shown that this intervention could benefit Year 5 children in particular.


Further basic science research investigating when time pressure is beneficial, for whom, and for what tasks, and when it could be a hindrance, will provide valuable information for teachers. A key factor is likely to be expertise. For example, early on with multiplication it is important for children to understand the concept of multiplication, which may take time. Then, however, it may be indeed useful for children to learn multiplication tables by rote so that results can be quickly retrieved to support more complex arithmetic work. So testing under time pressure may be beneficial at this point to train and emphasise quick retrieval. Research shows that with practice there is a shift in how the brain solves repeated arithmetic problems, with decreasing recruitment of the prefrontal cortex, which is important for problem-solving and novel situations, and increased activation of the parietal cortex, associated with more automatic retrieval of verbal information. This suggests that “experts” on a task may be less negatively affected by time pressure than “novices”. So overall it may be that when automatic, intuitive, responses are correct, then further practice under time pressure may be beneficial for consolidation and improved fast retrieval of information. In contrast, when intuitive responses are typically incorrect (as in counterintuitive or complex multi-steps problems), time pressure may be detrimental.


Collaboration with teachers will be needed to test this further and assess within each academic subject, and in different age groups, what approaches may be best. Importantly, a more nuanced understanding of how time constraints affect learning and thinking could inform examinations and assessment processes to increase their validity. Finally, the issue of how individual differences, for example in inhibitory control or in text anxiety, interact with the effect of time pressure will need more research.


Professor Iroise Dumontheil is Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck, University of London. She is a member of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development and Centre for Educational Neuroscience. Her research focuses on the typical development of social cognition and cognitive control during adolescence and their functioning in adulthood. Her studies combine a variety of methods to study brain and cognitive development including functional and structural neuroimaging, behavioural assessments, and genetics. She is further interested in the potential implications of this neuroscience research for education and is a member of the Learnus advisory group.;; @idumontheil

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