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Elementary Students Off Task for Nearly One-Third of Class Time, Study Finds

By Erik W. Robelen — May 08, 2014 3 min read

By guest blogger Holly Yettick. Cross-posted from the Inside School Research blog.

Elementary students spend nearly a third of their time off task, with distractions more likely to happen when children are working on their own or receiving whole-group instruction at their desks.

This is just one preliminary finding of a piece of research published in the proceedings of the most recent annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in 2013. The lead author of this conference paper was Carnegie Mellon University doctoral student Karrie E. Godwin.

“This study is one of a few large-scale studies to examine these issues,” said Godwin. “Prior studies examining similar issues have typically observed a more narrow range of grade levels, fewer classrooms, or a similar number of classrooms but a smaller sample of students within each classroom rather than observing all students present in the classroom as was done in this study.”

Students were more likely to stay on task during whole-group instruction while sitting on the carpet, testing, small-group instruction, and dancing, the researchers found. I love that dancing was a category although it did not happen often enough to collect adequate data so the researchers are excluding it from a fuller and more finalized version of this paper that they are submitting to academic journals. For the same reason, they are also excluding testing, which they observed infrequently because their study focused on instructional time.

Researchers found students were most likely to get off task during individual work time and whole-group instruction at their desks.

The researchers offered three main theories on why students were more likely to get off task during certain types of instruction. One was that certain formats might be easier for the teacher to supervise, reducing the chances of distraction. Another was that some formats were more motivating and engaging. For example, small group work is social and often includes hands-on learning. A third theory was that teachers tended to spend shorter amounts of time on lessons using certain formats, making it easier for children to stay focused.

The researchers’ conclusions were based on approximately 84 hours of observations of 22 K-4 classrooms at five unnamed charter schools. The observations took place between February and June of 2012. Using a guideline called the Baker-Rodrigo Observation Method Protocol, researchers classified students as “on-task” if they were looking at the teacher or the classroom assistant, or at instructional activity or materials. If they were looking elsewhere, they were “off-task.” However, observers did not merely try to behave like Polaroid cameras without ears or brains. For example, if a teacher asked students to discuss an idea with a partner, children were considered “on-task” if they were looking at their partners and “off-task” if researchers could tell that the conversation was clearly off-topic.

Overall, researchers found that students spent about 29 percent of class time off task, a finding that aligned with the conclusions of previous research.

Godwin noted that an important feature of the study was that observers did more than record whether or not a student was paying attention. They also examined what the students were doing when they were off task.

They did so by assigning distracted children’s behaviors to one of several categories. Self-distraction included actions like playing with a piece of clothing or closing one’s eyes. Peer-distracted kids were interacting with classmates when they were not supposed to be. Environmental distraction included gazing around the classroom while “walking” meant moving around the classroom when students were supposed to be still. “Supplies” meant playing around with pencils or other equipment.

In the end, peers were the most common distractions, responsible for nearly half (45 percent) of off-task behavior.

What are Students Doing When They are Off-task?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.

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