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Focusing on the past can hurt your grade point average

Graduate students who focused on negative problems in the past performed worse academically than their peers who focused on the present or the future, according to a study that was presented at Touro College Research Day.

People can be categorized by the way they focus on time – whether they are stuck in the past, live in the moment or are driven by the future. This idea of time perspective was coined by a Stanford University psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo. “Studies have shown that people who focus on the future have a better chance of achieving long-term goals and staving off impulsive goals in the present,” says the study’s lead author, Patricia Precin, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at Touro College School of Health Sciences.

Precin wanted to see how time perspective affected the academics of graduate students in occupational therapy. In her study, 56 students enrolled in occupational therapy doctoral programs in the U.S. completed the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory online, which contains 56 questions, while researchers examined their grades. Scores determine if students fit into one of six categories: past-negative, past- positive, present-hedonistic, present-fatalist, future and future-transcendental.

Students with a higher “past-negative” time perspective, meaning they not only focused on the past, but they focused on negative aspects of the past, tended to have the lowest grade point average.

“These students spend their time ruminating about the negative things that happened in the past,” says Precin. “If they’re thinking about the past, they are not spending time in the present, and may miss lecture material or not be able to sit down and study.”

While this study was performed on occupational therapy students, Precin has performed another study examining time perspectives of multidisciplinary students. She is now developing interventions that can help students change their time perspective from past-negative to a more balanced/flexible time perspective in order to enhance their academic outcomes and fieldwork performance.  The first step is to make people aware of their perspective. In some cases, students may need to talk with therapists to work through some of their past issues but goal-setting can also be helpful in keeping students focused on the future.