Why “Time-on-Task” Hurts Kids (and Test Scores)

There are a number of phrases in education that make me wince every time I hear them and “time-on-task” is right up there with “strict fidelity.” Time-on-task refers to the amount of time students are actively engaged in learning.

The thinking goes like this: The more of something people do, the better they get at it. Therefore, if we have students for seven hours each day, we should maximize their time-on-task so they’ll learn more stuff and get higher test scores. We shouldn’t waste a minute, and we certainly shouldn’t squander time on breaks and recesses.

That kind of thinking is wrong.

Before we get to the academic reasons why schools should build in more breaks for students, let’s start with this simple fact: It’s humane.

The United Nations recognizes this. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states, “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.” Maybe the UN should weigh in on recess time.

There’s also the law of diminishing returns. Put simply, doing more of something only works up to a point. After that point, performance suffers. This is seen in every field and there’s no reason to think it doesn’t happen to kids and their learning.

In one study, researchers recruited 31 students to learn a difficult computer task. The participants were split into three groups. A control group spent one hour training. A second group spent two hours on the task without stopping. A third group also trained for two hours, but they were given a one-hour break between sessions.

On the second day of the study, the control group had mastered the task better than the two-hour group, despite training for only half the time. Those who were given a break also outperformed the nonstop workers, even though the two groups had spent the same total time on the task. (SOURCE)

DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, looked at its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 straight minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer, said Julia Gifford at The Muse, by taking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers. (SOURCE)

Or consider the study of violinists conducted by performance expert Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and they took a break in between each one. They almost never practiced more than 4 ½ hours in a day. They  understood the law of diminishing returns.

Breaks aren’t just important for students’ performance and well-being, they’re essential.

In his newest book, When, Daniel Pink shares some research from Danish schools that found that the time of day students took national standardized tests impacted their scores. Pink writes:

“Students scored higher in the morning than in the afternoons. Indeed, for every hour later in the day the tests were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education–or missing two weeks of a school year.”

It would seem that a simple way to improve student test scores would be to simply move testing times to the morning. But researchers discovered what might be an even easier remedy.

When those same Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break to “eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores increased. Researchers concluded that scores went down in the afternoon, but they went up by a higher amount after breaks. Pink writes:

“Taking a test after a twenty- to thirty-minute break leads to scores that are equivalent to students spending three additional weeks in the classroom and having somewhat wealthier and better-educated parents. And the benefits were greatest for the lowest-performing students.”

The irony — and it’s rich — is that schools’ intent on maximizing “time-on-task” to the extent that their students aren’t given frequent breaks, especially in the afternoon, is actually sabotaging their own stated goal of improving student test scores.

Instead of adding days or hours to the calendar, or forcing our lowest students to do even more work, we need only to acknowledge the law of diminishing returns. Kids should be allowed to do as the violinists do and take more breaks.

Pink helpfully offers suggestions based on research about what kinds of breaks work best:

Short and Frequent

Short, frequent breaks are more effective than occasional, longer ones. Which means most schools do recess wrong. It would be better to have students run around for five minutes after each 45-minute learning block than it would be to give one 30-minute recess in the afternoon with no other breaks.

Move

Having students use technology during their breaks is better than no break at all, but getting them moving is better.

Be Social

We are social animals. Time alone can be good, but time with others, especially if students get to choose who those others are, is better.

Get Outside

Research shows that people who take short walks outside return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk inside. Nature seems to have a rehabilitating effect on people.

Detach

Don’t ask students to multi-task during breaks. Don’t have them keep working on their papers while eating a snack. That’s not productive. For the best breaks, get students out of the classroom doing things that have nothing to do with learning.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that the easiest way schools could accomplish all of the above is by giving kids frequent outdoor recesses. People often complain that education hasn’t changed in 100 years. This is one example of how it would be better for kids (and test scores) if that was true.

 

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