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'Time-on-Task' Findings Are Inconclusive, Says New Analysis

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Although recent studies linking "time-on-task" with student achievement have provided useful information on teaching practices, they have not produced overwhelming evidence in support of the widely held belief that the amount of time spent on instruction increases learning.

In fact, says a researcher who has analyzed the existing studies of time-on-task, other factors--including the fact that some teachers are simply better than others--may have more bearing on how students learn than educators' "commonsense" perception that increased teaching time equals increased learning.

"The view that time spent is equivalent to learning gained has become the newest myth to cloud our understanding of education," argues Nancy L. Karweit in her study, "Time on Task: A Research Review." The study was conducted under contract to the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The commission, which was appointed by President Reagan in September 1981, has been collecting testimony on the effectiveness of the nation's schools. The 18-member panel is scheduled to issue its final report this month.

The analysis of time-on-task studies was requested by the commission for its use in compiling the report on effective schooling.

Major Research Effort

During the past 10 years, the study of time-on-task has been a major thrust of the National Institute of Education's research activities, starting with "The Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study," one of the most widely known studies on time and learning.

Ms. Karweit, a researcher at The Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools, contends that such studies have generally shown a "positive" relationship between time spent on instruction and learning. But because that relationship is so statistically small, she concludes in her report, the studies cannot with any certainty identify time-on-task as a "causative factor" in learning.

A better explanation, according to Ms. Karweit, may be that some teachers are more sensitive to the diversity of students' learning styles, their readiness for the subject matter, and the nature of the instruction.

"Focusing on time-on-task provides part of the information needed to understand effective instruction," Ms. Karweit asserts. What is omitted from the research, but is equally necessary, she says, is information on "the appropriateness of instruction for the learner."

Study's Conclusions

Ms. Karweit based her conclusions on several findings contained in the studies she evaluated. Those findings are that:

Nearly all of the studies had been conducted on elementary-school students in self-contained classrooms. Therefore, she concluded, the findings of those studies may not be applicable to junior- and senior-high-school students.

The amount of time spent on learning is determined by a number of factors, including length of the school day and school year, the teacher's decision about what to teach, the type of instruction used by the teacher, the teacher's managerial skills, and a student's willingness and ability to pay attention to classroom presentations.

Noninstructional activities consumed at least half of each school day.

The instructional focus in every classroom differs.

Despite the limitations of the time-on-task studies, according to Ms. Karweit, they do show that educators need to identify management problems in the classroom and to correct ineffective instructional practices.

"It is difficult to argue with this almost definitional assertion that more time produces more learning," Ms. Karweit contends in her study.

"Given the commonsense nature of the assertion, it perhaps is most surprising that so much attention has been paid to it," Ms. Karweit states. "But, based as it is in commonsense and commonly shared perceptions about what makes for effective classrooms, dispelling such findings will not be easy."

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