Although no claim was discovered during the course of the present study to indicate that the passing of time actually causes learning, the theories reviewed unanimously assume it to be a general pre-condition in order for learning to take place. This foundational role of time in learning was well stated by McGeoch (1932, p. 359):

Time, in and of itself, does nothing. It contributes, rather, a logical framework in terms of which we can describe the sequence of observed events. Certain spans of it are necessary in order to give other and effective factors a chance to operate, and time, thus, figures largely in scientific description, but not as a factor in causal laws nor as itself active in any way.

The role of time in Thorndike’s theory is inferred, for example, by his law of exercise (Thorndike, 1914a, p. 70), the concept of multiple or varied response (p. 132), and the process of associative shifting (p. 136). Pavlov noted the presence of time in his experiments of conditioning when he said, “there are great differences in the time required for the establishing of a conditioned reflex” (Pavlov et al., 1928, p. 89). Watson’s principles of frequency and recency (Watson, 1914, p. 262) are both variables of time. He also spoke of the diminishing returns of practice and the need for spacing trials out across multiple days: “Within certain limits, which have not been determined yet, it is far more economical, so far as the number of trials is concerned, to give a few rather than a large number of trials per day” (Watson, 1914, p. 230). Skinner’s schedules of reinforcement are inseparable from the passing of time inasmuch as they are defined by the administration of reinforcement according to periodic or random delivery  (Ferster & Skinner, 1957; Skinner, 1958), as are his methods of operant conditioning—namely shaping (Skinner, 1953, p. 91; Skinner, 1961e, p. 413), vanishing (1986, p. 107), and chaining (Skinner, 1953, p. 224) ).

Time-relevant aspects of Hull’s theory include (a) habit strength, which is built up over time as the number of pairings between stimulus and response increases; (b) reactive inhibition, which is caused by fatigue and has been used to explain why higher levels of performance are reached in distributed practice (i.e., when practice trials are spaced far apart) than in massed practice (i.e., when practice trials are closer together); (c) the “oscillation effect,” which states that factors tending to inhibit a learned response change from moment to moment; and (d) extinction,[1] with the value of momentary effective reaction potential at the end of training determining how many non-reinforced responses will need to be made before extinction occurs.

It has already been explained that while Guthrie believed that “a stimulus pattern gains its full associative strength on the occasion of its first pairing with a response” (Guthrie, 1942, p. 30), he also acknowledged that “in learning any skill, what must be acquired is not an association or any series of associations, but many thousands of associations that will connect specific movements with specific situations” (Guthrie, 1942, p. 36). Obviously, this type of learning requires time. Another aspect of time prevalent in Guthrie’s theory is the notion that the most recent movement that was successful will be that which is associated with a given stimulus (Guthrie, 1940, p. 145).

The stimulus condition in Estes’ model was regarded as “a finite population of relatively small, independent, environmental events, of which only a sample is effective at any given time” (W. K. Estes, 1950, p. 96). In this view of learning multiple trials are necessary for each of the stimulus elements to become conditioned to the response because of fluctuations in momentary effective stimuli, which result from either changes in the environment (e.g., extraneous noises, temperature fluctuations, and stray odors), or changes in the subject (e.g., changes in focus of attention, posture, or sensory transmission system) (Bower & Hilgard, 1981, pp. 215-216).

The element of time in learning was addressed more directly, and was even the primary focus of study in many cases, in cognitive learning theory research. Ebbinghaus, for example, examined the effect of multiple periods of study on retention of what has been learned, concluding that his memorized series of nonsense syllables “are gradually forgotten” (Ebbinghaus, 1913, p. 81), but that “the series which have been learned twice fade away much more slowly than those which have been learned but once” (p. 81) and “if the relearning is performed a second, a third or a greater number of times, the series are more deeply engraved and fade out less easily and finally, as one would anticipate, they become possessions of the soul” (p. 81). He also studied the savings in relearning (i.e., the reduced amount of time needed to relearn that which was previously learned), and the time savings in learning achieved by distributing practice over multiple sessions:

“For the relearning of a 12-syllable series at a definite time, accordingly, 38 repetitions, distributed in a certain way over the three preceding days, had just as favorable an effect as 68 repetitions made on the day just previous. Even if one makes very great concessions to the uncertainty of numbers based on so few researches, the difference is large enough to be significant. It makes the assumption probable that with any considerable number of repetitions a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.” (Ebbinghaus, 1913, p. 89)

The hypothesized building of cognitive maps for the rats in Tolman’s latent learning experiments occurred over the course of a “long series of preliminary training” in which the rats were permitted to explore the maze without the reward of food (Tolman, 1938, p. 22; 1948, p. 194). Kohler’s apes learned the use of sticks and boxes over periods ranging from several minutes to several weeks. Tschego, for example, learned to use sticks to pull food within reach of the bars of her cage after trying other methods for more than half an hour, finally resorting to the sticks only after a period of rest and under duress of the smaller monkeys outside the cage threatening to steal the food (Kohler, 1951, pp. 31-32). Koko learned to use the box to reach high objects only after several weeks (pp. 39-45).

The significance of time in cognitive information processing theory is manifest in the limited retention period of sensory and short term memory stores—the former capable of holding relatively small amounts of information only for “brief moments of time” (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 272)  and the latter “capable of holding relatively limited amounts of information for a matter of seconds and, in some cases, up to two minutes” (p. 272). In contrast, long-term memory store is believed to have “very large—possibly unlimited—capacity [and] is capable of storing information for very long periods of time, possibly indefinitely” (p. 272). Information will disappear unless something is done to ensure its survival. Typically this is rehearsal. Rehearsal not only serves the purpose of keeping information active, but such a state of activity gives strength to the memory trace in long-term storage and enables encoding to occur:

“Rehearsal serves the purpose of increasing the strength built up in a long-term store, both by increasing the length of stay in STS (during which time a trace is built up in LTS) and by giving coding and other storage processes time to operate” (R. C. Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, p. 35).

Ausubel had much to say on the role of time in learning. He believed (a) that rotely learned items had less of a retention span than meaningfully learned items because they lacked an anchoring point (Ausubel, 1962, p. 216); (b) that the “major organizational principle” (p. 216) of learning is one of progressive differentiation, which occurs through “a process of subsumption” (p. 216); and (c) that this process of subsumption has both an “orienting, relational, and cataloguing [stage] to anchor the new material to an established ideational system” (p. 216),  and a later “obliterative stage of subsumption  [in which] the specific items become progressively less dissociable as entities in their own right” (p. 217) because “it is more economical and less burdensome to retain a single inclusive concept than to remember a large number of more specific items” (p. 217). He spoke of spaced review over long periods of time and intervals between practice sessions, concluding that “evidence supports the conclusion that distributed practice is more effective than massed practice for both learning and retention” (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 326). He also described the relative advantages of both early and delayed review, noting the principle advantage of early review to be “its superior consolidating, ‘feedback,’ and ‘sensitizing’ effects in relation to more highly available material” (Ausubel et al., 1978, p. 321) and the principle advantage of delayed review to be “the superior relearning of partially forgotten material, both on motivational and cognitive grounds” (p. 321), and concluded that “the two varieties are presumably complementary rather than redundant or mutually exclusive, and can thus be profitably combined” (p. 321).

According to schema theorists Rumelhart and Norman, learning happens through “the gradual accretion of information, through the fine tuning of conceptualizations we already possess or through the restructuring of existing knowledge” (1976, p. 3). They described “real” learning as taking place “over periods of years, not hours” (p. 5). Similarly, in constructive learning theory we find the view that learning is an ongoing process and that “our perceptions are constantly engaged in a grand dance that shapes our understandings” (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p. 4). In the constructive view of learning students must be “given time and stimulation to seek relevance and the opportunity to reveal their own points of view [as well as] opportunities to ponder the question, form their own responses, and accept the risk of sharing their thoughts with others” (pp. 37-38). They must be allowed time to “construct relationships and create metaphors” (p. 115).

The connection between Piaget’s stages of development (Piaget, 1963; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969) and the passing of time is obvious. So too, is the connection between time and Bruner’s notions of spiral curriculum and learning through “cumulative constructionism” in discovery (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 25).  In both cases, time is a necessary factor that provides a span of opportunity for the process of learning to take place.

Vygotsky spoke of development as “a series of inner changes” (Vygotsky, 1994b, p. 64). He also said that external functions “take on the character of inner processes only as a result of a prolonged development” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57) and that “the transformation of an interpersonal process into an intrapersonal one is the result of a long series of developmental events” (p. 57). Such descriptions of development as a prolong series, along with his sliding window of the zone of proximal development (pp. 84-91) strongly suggest that learning takes time.

Bandura described observational learning as a more efficient means of learning then reinforcement learning. He said, “Reinforcement provides an effective means of regulating behaviors that have already been learned, but it is a relatively inefficient way of creating them” (Bandura, 1977b, p. 22). However, Bandura notes that even in the acquisition of behavior through modeling an investment of time is required to refine the new behavior once an initial “close approximation” (p. 28) has been achieved.

Situated learning describes the process of “fashioning relations of identity as a full practitioner” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 121) as a gradual one. In the example of the apprenticeship of Yucatan midwives Lave reported that “as time goes on, the apprentice takes over more and more of the work load, starting with the routine and tedious parts, and ending with what is in Yucatan the culturally most significant, the birth of the placenta” (p. 69). Again, the presence of time in learning, is obvious in the gradual increase in scope of the tasks the apprentice is able to take on.

Three aspects of time are mentioned in activity theory: (a) historicity, (b) learning over long, discontinuous periods of time, and (c) large-scale cycles of learning involve several smaller cycles which may transpire in just a few days or even hours:

Activity systems take shape and get transformed over lengthy periods of time. Their problems and potentials can only be understood against  their own history. (Engestrom, 2001, p. 136)

Learning in co-configuration settings is typically distributed over long, discontinuous periods of time. (Engestrom, 2004, p. 15)

Large-scale cycles involve numerous smaller cycles of learning actions. Such a smaller cycle may take place within a few days or even hours of intensive collaborative analysis and problem solving. Careful investigation may reveal a rich texture of learning actions within such temporally short efforts. (Engestrom, 2010, p. 11)

Cognitive apprenticeship does not directly address the role of time in learning, but it’s necessity is evident in the processes of modeling, coaching, scaffolding and fading, articulation, reflection, and exploration described by Collins et al. (1991). Table 3 summarizes the local principles from the theories reviewed that are subsumed by the universal principle of time.

Table 3

Principles of Learning Subsumed by the Universal Principle of Time

Theory Group Local principles
Behavioral Aristotle:

Developing “intellectual goodness” takes time

Gradation of attainment over time


Frequency and duration of performing a given activity

Time for attempting multiple or varied responses

Associative shifting through multiple trials


Strength of connection preserved through repetition “time and again”

Variations in time required to establish a conditioned reflex

Stimulating power of a certain food can be eliminated over a long period of time by presenting it without letting the animal eat it


Frequency and recency are both variables of time

First few trials require a large amount of excess time

Habits are formed usually very gradually

Fewer trials per day is more economical than many


Schedules of reinforcement




Learning takes time because of fatigue and the need for rest


Habit strength is built up over time through repeated pairing of stimulus and response

Higher levels of performance are reached in distributed practice than in massed   practice

Factors tending to inhibit a learned response change from moment to moment

Momentary effective reaction potential at the end of training determines how many non-reinforced responses will need to be made before extinction occurs


A stimulus pattern gains its full associative strength on the occasion of its first pairing with a response

Learning any skill requires learning many thousands of associations

Learning a skill requires varied experience

Recency principle


Conditioning by stimulus sample occurs over time through exposure to multiple    samples of the stimulus element population


Cognitive Ebbinghaus:

Memorized series of nonsense syllables are gradually forgotten

That which has been learned twice fades away more slowly

Increased relearning eventually produces knowledge that is not forgotten

Advantage of distributed over massed repetition

The forgetting curve


Time is required for latent learning and the building up of cognitive maps


Koko took several weeks to learn to use the box

Tschego learned to pull fruit to her cage with a stick in just over half an hour

Cognitive Information Processing:

The sensory register holds is capable of holding relatively small amounts of    information for brief moments of time

Short-term memory is capable of holding relatively limited amounts of information for a matter of seconds and, in some cases, up to two minutes

Long-term memory has possibly unlimited capacity and is capable of storing    information for very long periods of time, possibly indefinitely

Information will disappear rapidly from short-term memory unless you take action to ensure its survival

Total-time hypothesis

Maintenance rehearsal holds information in memory for short periods of time

Elaborative rehearsal encodes information for long-term storage

Distributed learning is better than massed learning

Teaching strategy: allow time for rehearsal

Teaching strategy: schedule frequent practices of new information

Decay theory

Revisiting the same material at different times

Rehearsal increases the length of stay in STS and gives coding and other processes time to operate


Retention span

Progressive differentiation

Stages of subsumption

Interference causing forgetting

Concept formation occurs in time through successive stages of hypothesis generation and testing and generalization

Simultaneous availability of multiple instances


Sequentially organized learning with consolidation or mastery

Spaced review over long periods of time

Intervals between practice sessions

Advantages of both early and delayed review

Schema Theory:

Decrease in accessibility of text elements remotely connected to the dominant schema as time passes

The learning of complex topics takes months, or even years

Time is required both for accumulation of information, and organization of that    information

Role of contiguity in the creation of new schemata

Restructuring often takes place only after considerable time and effort

Constructive General:

Learning is an ongoing process

Students need time to construct relationships and create metaphors


Stages of development demonstrate learning over time

First habits are formed through exercise or conditioning

Circular reaction


Spiral curriculum

Cumulative constructionism, or the use of previously acquired information in    guiding further discovery

Learning the heuristics of discovery through practice


Human n/a


Social Vygotsky:

Sliding window of ZPD

Long series of developmental events


Development is a series of inner changes


Efficiency in learning (less time required through observational learning then    through trial and error)

Repeated practice with feedback

Situated learning:

Developing relations of identity is a gradual process

Learning occurs over time

Activity theory:

Historicity: activity systems take shape and get transformed over lengthening periods of time

Learning occurs over long, discontinuous periods of time

Smaller cycles of learning may occur in a few days or hours

Cognitive apprenticeship:

Time as a necessary condition for learning through apprenticeship is not explicitly discussed but is self evident.


[1] Extinction is a part of all behaviorist learning theories but has been mentioned here specifically to capture Hull’s view that the greater the momentary reaction potential at the end of training, the greater the resistance to extinction, and hence, the longer duration of time for which  the learned association persist.

Leave a Comment