Taking the Appropriate Amount of Time: Impact of Attention and Temporal-Sequential Ordering

There is an optimal rate for accomplishing most tasks. A competent student is often a well-paced student, performing at a rate appropriate to the task and available time. Taking the appropriate amount of time for a task is largely dependent upon both a student’s temporal-sequential skills and his/her attentional abilities. Temporal-sequential skills help us interpret, retain, or create information that is in serial order. These skills are related to a student’s ability to appreciate time in general and estimate time appropriately.

Tempo control (a facet of attention) helps students regulate the allocation of time to the task at hand, and predict the time required for an upcoming task. Tempo control also instills a sense of “step-wisdom”, the knowledge that it is more effective to undertake activities in a series of steps, rather than all at once. Tempo control allows a student to match his/her pacing to the demands of a given task, e.g., to take the right amount of time to finish an essay test, to do a homework assignment thoroughly yet efficiently, etc.

Here are some strategies to help students become better able to take the appropriate amount of time on assignments and activities.

Developing Concepts of Time

  • Help students understand the relationship between how long they should maintain focus, and how much time will be required to do a task well. For example, teach students to analyze a task or assignment in advance, and to estimate the time needed to complete it. You may need to demonstrate how to do this type of time estimation, and how to budget time accordingly.  
  • Promote the evenly balanced use of effort and pacing, e.g., not working too franticly or too slowly during a test or assignment.  
  • Have students develop time lines for historical and narrative events to improve their appreciation of temporal sequence, or the passing of events through time.  
  • Encourage students to keep a diary, which may make the sequence of events in time or the passage of time more meaningful.

Managing Time

  • To improve time management skills, have students make up a study schedule for a day, the week, etc.  
  • Require students to plan for a designated number of minutes, work for a designated number of minutes, review for a designated number of minutes, etc.  
  • Encourage students to make outlines for written reports and oral presentations to help with the pacing and organization of their ideas.  
  • Do not allow students to perseverate on tasks for longer than is necessary. For example, suggest spending only two minutes on each problem, brainstorming as a short separate exercise before writing, etc.  
  • Stress the real-life benefits of both estimating before doing, and reasoning after doing (e.g., thinking about the answers to math problems, the results of a science experiment, etc.). Discourage the preoccupation students may have with just getting the answer.  
  • Eliminate student incentives for frenzied pacing, or rushing through work. Remove positive reinforcement for being the first to finish a task.  
  • Allow students to use calculators, word processors, dictating machines, etc. to increase their rate of production during assignments.  
  • Teach students how to use textbooks efficiently, e.g., how to use the table of contents and the index, to skim the chapter for key words, dates and names, to look at pictures for clues to meaning, to read the questions at the end of a chapter before reading the chapter, etc.

Breaking Activities Into Steps (Staging)

  • Encourage students to use staging, i.e., to break a complex task into smaller, shorter, or less complex “mini-tasks.” For example, provide students with a template such as a blank timeline, flow chart, or task web to use to analyze a task and break it into stages. Show how pre-planning long or complex tasks into stages can be beneficial.  
  • Encourage students to take intermittent breaks when working on long assignments, undertaking many tasks, or working for an extended period of time, e.g., a sustained period of listening, taking notes, or silent reading. Make work more manageable by having students solve a certain number of problems, write a certain number of words or sentences, or read a certain number of paragraphs at a time.  
  • Reinforce the staging process by rewarding students with quick breaks when mini-tasks are completed.