The Limits of “Time on Task”

Adapted from The Homework Myth (Da Capo Press, 2006)


Back “when experimental psychologists mainly studied words and nonsense syllables, it was thought that learning inevitably depended upon time,” a group of educational psychologists explained.  But “subsequent research suggests that this belief is false.”[1]

Why?  Let’s begin by conceding that the statement “People need time to learn things” is true.  The problem is that it’s a trivial truth, one that doesn’t tell us much of practical value.  On the other hand, the assertion “More time usually leads to better learning” is considerably more interesting.  It’s also demonstrably false, however, because there are enough cases where more time doesn’t lead to better learning.  In the real world, the loose connection between these two variables doesn’t mean very much.

It’s hard to deny, for example, that lots of kids spend time in school looking at books, or listening to lectures, without getting much out of the experience.  Would more of what the experts call “time on task” (ToT) be likely to make a difference?  The answer to that question is so obvious that ToT proponents were forced some years ago to revise their original proposition.  In the amended version, learning was said to improve in proportion to the quantity of engaged time on task.  But how do we help kids become engaged with what they’re doing?  There’s been quite a lot written on creating classrooms that promote student engagement.  These ideas pull us in a variety of directions, some more promising than others.  But time is, at best, only one consideration among many.  More to the point, compelling students to do more assignments — at school or at home — is not especially likely to maximize engaged time.  The upshot is that in order for the idea of ToT to be of any use at all, it has to be refined in such a way that time, per se, is no longer the dominant concept.

Let’s look at the research a little more closely.  The amount of time a student spends on a task “is not so consistently related to achievement as it may seem,” one scholar concluded from her review of several studies on the subject.  “Time is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for learning.  Learning takes time, but providing time does not in itself ensure that learning will take place.  More time may result in more learning – if [lack of] adequate time was the major cause of the problem in the first place.  If other factors were the real cause, then providing more time will not be an effective strategy.”[2]

Let’s come at the question from another direction.  Instead of asking “Does more time for academics help?” maybe we should ask “Does more time for academics help more than other things we could do instead?”  A Stanford University study compared four different reforms:  peer tutoring, smaller classes, more use of computers, and adding an hour of instruction each day.  The result:  “On a cost-effectiveness basis, the time intervention was found to rank at the bottom with respect to improving student performance in mathematics and third out of the four [in reading].”[3]

Carole Ames, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University, points out that it isn’t “quantitative changes in behavior” – such as requiring students to spend more hours in front of books or worksheets – that help children to learn better.  Rather, it’s “qualitative changes in the ways students view themselves in relation to the task, engage in the process of learning, and then respond to the learning activities and situation.”[4] In turn, these attitudes and responses on the part of students emerge from the way teachers think about learning and, as a result, the ways they’ve organized their classrooms.  If the goal is to figure out how best to cover a set curriculum – to fill students with facts – then it might seem appropriate to try to maximize ToT, such as by assigning homework or lengthening the school day or year.  But that’s highly unlikely to have a positive effect on the critical variables that Ames identifies.  Perhaps it makes sense to see education as being less about how much the teacher covers and more about what the students can be helped to discover.  More time won’t do a thing to bring about that shift.

On an even more basic level, to think about providing more time for students to learn something is to sidestep the question of whether that something is worth learning.  Suppose that extra hours after school really did make it more likely that children would be able to commit a list of dates or definitions to memory.  If there isn’t a good reason to make students memorize something they’re likely to forget anyway (and which they can always look up if necessary), then the apparent advantage of more time wouldn’t mean very much.  Of course, this invites us to ask what is worth learning, and how that should be decided.  But my point is that a conversation on so crucial a topic is less likely to take place when we‘re focused on trying to maximize the amount of time spent on the tasks that comprise the current curriculum.

In fact, the nature of the task helps to determine the relationship between time and achievement.  It turns out that more hours are least likely to produce better outcomes when understanding or creativity is involved.  “How much is learned by rote is a direct function of time and effort,” acknowledges literacy expert Frank Smith.  “But when the learning is meaningful we learn much faster. . . . Having to spend long periods of time in repetitive efforts to learn specific things is a sign that learning is not taking place, that we are not in a productive learning situation.”[5]

Sure enough, researchers have found that when children are taught to read by focusing on the meaning of the text (rather than primarily on phonetic skills), their learning does “not depend on amount of instructional time.”[6] In math, too, even the new-and-improved concept of “engaged” ToT is directly correlated to achievement only if both the activities and the measure of achievement are focused on rote recall.  By contrast, there is no “linear positive relationship for higher level mathematics activities, including mathematical applications and problem solving.”[7]

Thus, claims that longer class days (or years) produce “better outcomes” or “higher achievement” should be met with skepticism even if they occasionally turn out to be true. If those phrases mean only that more time might improve standardized test results, that’s very different from showing that it leads to better learning — which, as we’ve seen, is less likely to be true (by more ambitious criteria). No wonder the folks who confuse higher test scores with better learning are also more likely to think kids should be made to spend more time doing the same stuff.


[For complete citations, please see The Homework Myth]
  1. Anderson et al., p. 34.
  2. Karweit, p. 33.
  3. Levin 1984, p. 3.
  4. Ames, p. 268.
  5. Smith, p. 46.  This view directly contradicts the widespread notion that education is always hard work – an idea that proceeds from a specific and usually unstated set of assumptions about what’s being taught, and how.  Some kinds of curriculum, and some instructional techniques, canmake learning unpleasant, but the unpleasantness isn’t inevitable.
  6. Anderson et al., p. 34.
  7. Putnam et al., p. 129.  Note that this doesn’t mean ToT loses its relevance for mathematics in the later grades; it means it’s less important at all grades when the subject is taught in a way that emphasizes understanding.