Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.

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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools
Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Director of Athletics
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington Public Schools

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read