How well do adults learn under time pressure?

synapseThrough studies in neuroscience we know that active learning occurs when the brain cells called neurons receive information in the form of signals through branches called dendrites. This information is then sent to other neurons through the root like nerve cells called axon, where chemicals called neurotransmitters are fired through a gap called synapse. Trillions of these neuronal connections exist in the brain, some of which are strengthened (as we learn), some of which are eliminated (as we forget).

Learning becomes more permanent when the networks of neuronal connections are strengthened within a standby period of time. The strengthened and more permanent neural connections are retained for greater lengths of time; days, decades and even entire life times. The information in these permanent neural connections also become easier to be retrieved (recalled).  On the other hand, neuronal connections that are formed in the short term memory that is not strengthened within the standby period of time, decays and gets removed.

Since learners want to be able to recall what they learned it is important for them to reinforce the learning by strengthening the neural connections within the special window of time or the time needed for the neurons to synthesize the necessary proteins for “long term potentiation” (LTP).

An initial stimulation triggers communication across the synapse between two neurons; further stimulation causes the cells to produce key proteins that bind to the synapse, cementing the memory in place. If the memory is to last for more than a few hours, these proteins must bind to specific synapses and actually change the cellular structure.

Based on this basic knowledge from neuroscience, it is clear that learning takes time; first for forming the initial stimulation then, for further stimulation to strengthen the memory.  That means learners who invest more time in their learning will have better success in mastering what they are trying to learn. How about those who do not have much time for learning or those who learn under time pressure; how strong is their learning? Are there any strategies for reducing the time it takes for active learning?  What are the time pressure issues for adults in this day and age? These are some questions that come to mind.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) reported that more and more Canadians are feeling crunched for time when trying to balance home and work. Reflecting on my ten years of teaching, it is quite common that a small percentage of my adult students request extensions on their course work because they simply did not have time for their studies due to work, family, health issues etc. These students often complete their course work under tremendous time pressure and some don’t produce satisfactory work to meet course requirements. Some will only complete the minimal level of work for gaining a passing grade. I often wondered if these students would have performed better if they had more time of if I had the luxury of allowing them more time.

While some learners produce their best work under time pressure such as during an exam, some certainly struggle on relational learning that is involved in the courses that I teach. Adam Chuderski (2016) explains relation learning to be:

“learning to understand and use abstract concepts (e.g., “hierarchy”), general rules (e.g., “juxtaposition”), aswell as naïve theories of both natural phenomena (e.g. “digestion”) and artificial phenomena (e.g., “electricity”). A crucial process underlying such learning is relational reasoning: The systematic and combinatorial processing of structured information (e.g., the mapping of corresponding elements between two structurally matching situations; Holyoak, 2012) that allows people to infer the proper relations between the elements of a given situation”

In the Adam Chuderski (2016) in his “Learning and Individual Differences” research journal, also concluded that, time pressure prevents relational learning. Here is the abstract of his study:

The study investigated the effect of prior experience on two different reasoning tests (Raven’s Matrices and Figural Analogy). Each test was divided into two equivalent subtests. Subjects took one subtest either with or without time pressure, after either doing the other subtest as a learning experience under time pressure, or doing it without pressure, or not having the learning experience at all. Time pressure decreased scores for the second subtest. Prior experience of the other subtest under time pressure had no clear effect on scores compared with the no-experience condition. Prior experience without time pressure improved scores (by 25%) for the group taking the second subtest under time pressure but not the scores of the group taking the second subtest without time pressure. We interpret this as meaning that the time pressure prevents relational learning, but such learning can occur within a test when time pressure is relaxed.

All other factors aside and considering Chuderski’s findings,  it is fair to say that adult learners will benefit from curriculums that takes into consideration the appropriate time allocation for each learning tasks; especially for subjects that involves relational learning. Reducing time pressure on learning by allowing flexibility with time should result in stronger learning outcomes for adult learners.


Barkley, Elizabeth F.. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (Kindle Locations 689-691). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Chuderski (2016). “Time pressure prevents relational learning” ; Research Journal “Learning and Individual Differences

Leave a Reply