School & District Management

Time and Schools: What the Research Says

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 25, 2020 4 min read
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Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.”

“If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him. ... Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.”

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

School leaders and teachers are constantly trying to extend time, wrangle time, squeeze more time—but all too often, the traditions and truisms about how schools should use time turn out to be as upside-down as a tea party in Wonderland.

In part because schools were originally designed on factory models of efficient time use, with academic credit measured in part through set seat time, education on the whole has equated more academic time with more learning.

This is true, but depends on how you measure it. The time students are engaged in learning tasks is associated with higher academic achievement, but it’s not endless; simply adding more and more can have small and diminishing returns over time.

Emerging research is highlighting some perhaps surprising ways that educators can rethink how they use time to support student learning.

Does a Double- or Triple-Dose Class Help Students Learn?

Intensive, “double-dose” math and reading blocks have become a popular intervention for struggling students, but the evidence on the intervention is somewhat limited.

Much of the research on doubled math and reading classes has centered on particular urban programs, such as those in Chicago and San Diego. One longitudinal study of Chicago students found a double-dose algebra class significantly improved students’ test scores, credits earned, and high school graduation rates, but the benefits partly depended on how differently teachers used the time than in a typical class. For example, the math block focused on verbally exploring math concepts, and the study found students with low reading skills saw the greatest benefits from the class.

But a Stanford University study of Miami middle schoolers found that short-term gains from participating in a double-block of math were halved a year later and completely gone by two; those researchers estimated that opportunity costs of missing other classes may outweigh students’ short-term math gains.

Grade level may matter, too. In San Diego, University of California researchers found a double-length “literacy block” and triple-length “literacy core” raised middle school students’ reading achievement significantly, but in high school, English- learners lost as much as 4.9 percentile points for every year they participated in the literacy blocks.

Breaking Better

Even if students do get recess, research suggests they can also benefit from shorter, frequent breaks during classtime to stretch, play, or just daydream.

One 2016 study found students in kindergarten through 4th grade showed better focus and time-on- task when teachers presented material in three 10-minute lessons, interspersed with brief calm breaks, than when they taught in a single 30-minute stretch.

This aligns with other studies that have found ratios of focus and rest of up to 15:5 minutes in elementary-age students and 30:5 minutes in secondary students.

Getting students’ heartbeat up during the breaks can improve their effectiveness, too. Other studies have found that active 10- or 20-minute exercise breaks improved students’ attention more than a quiet break or 5-minute “wriggle time.” And a large-scale international study found active, 30-minute breaks just before test periods were linked to average test scores 1.7 percent of a standard deviation higher than those of students who did not have a break.

How Much Does Morning Matter for Testing?

A lot can affect a student’s ability to remember what he’s learned and demonstrate what she knows and can do on a test, and studies find timing can play a significant role in performance.

In self-contained classrooms that can move around their subjects, there’s a case for moving tested subjects temporarily to the morning. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the standardized test performance of every child in Denmark, ages 8 to 15, from 2009-2013. Researchers found that for every hour later in the day that students took tests, their average performance dropped by nearly 1 percent of a standard deviation, with even stronger declines for older students and those tested in math.

Should We Bring Back Naptime?

By early elementary school, students are expected to be well weaned off the afternoon nap, and as academic demands increase in kindergarten, naptime has come under threat in even the earliest years of school. But to improve students’ memory, attention, behavior, and mental well-being, research suggests schools may benefit from allowing little siestas in older grades, not cutting them off earlier.

Ten percent to 33 percent of 5 and 6 year olds still need to take daily naps of 60 to 90 minutes, and doing so helps both preschool and elementary students’ brains mature in ways linked to critical thinking and memory, according to developmental research. But studies have also found that naps can boost teenagers’ memory more than a cram session and improve their verbal skills. Napping even helped offset—though not eliminate—cognitive and attention declines for chronically sleep-deprived teenagers (meaning pretty much all of them.)

Maybe teachers should reconsider waking the students dozing in study hall.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Research Notes

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