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Identifying (and Engaging Students in) Time-on-Task Activities

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One of the last century’s more powerful research-based conclusions regarding instruction was that sufficient and engaged time-on-task is pivotal to instructional success. Students will learn better if they have plenty of opportunity to practice what they’re supposed to be learning. Oversimplifying a bit, but not by much, the notion that "practice makes perfect" is not only alluringly alliterative; it is also solidly supported by empirical research. See, for example, the review of practice-related research in Chapter 3 of Marzano's The Art and Science of Teaching (2007).

What the advocacy of students' engaged time-on-task means for instructional design is straightforward: if the curricular aim involved calls for students to acquire a high-level cognitive skill, such as being able to evaluate the cogency of newspaper editorials, then during the instruction intended to promote their mastery of that skill, students must get plenty of practice applying this particular high-level cognitive skill. However, a student’s mastery of a truly challenging curricular aim often depends on mastery of essential building blocks and bodies of enabling knowledge. My recommendation, then, is for teachers to install ample opportunities for students to practice using the skill or knowledge represented by a curricular aim and to practice each of the building blocks in a curricular aim’s learning progression. So, for example, if a teacher’s target curricular aim is to get students to be able to evaluate the cogency of newspaper articles, a learning progression for this skill might contain only two subskills: (1) being able to determine the accuracy of an editorial’s content and (2) judging the adequacy of the editorial’s logic. The teacher, in view of this learning progression, should give students guided and independent practice on both building blocks and on the target curricular aim's ultimate skill.

Earlier, I recommended that teachers create their end-of-instruction assessments prior to their instructional design decisions as a way to gain a better understanding the nature of the curricular aim being pursued. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I think teachers should at least think through the nature of the assessments they can use to verify whether their students have mastered each of the major building blocks in a learning progression. Ideally, teachers should actually create those assessments because they’ll want to use them, later on, as a pivotal part of the formative-assessment process. And, of course, the act of using assessments to exemplify each subskill or body of enabling knowledge in a learning progression helps the teacher gain better insight into the nature of those building blocks.

Engaging Students in Time-on-Task Activities

How do teachers get their students to engage in time-on-task? Well, this certainly depends on the students the teacher has and the curricular aims the teacher is pursuing. A four-step procedure, that will usually work quite well, calls for teachers to provide their students with (1) explanation, (2) modeling, (3) guided practice, and (4) independent practice. Let's briefly consider each of these steps.

Step 1: Explanation. For most curricular aims, students will require explanation. For example, suppose (as a curricular aim), a teacher wanted students to be able to critique the quality of their own oral presentations by using a rubric containing four evaluative criteria. The teacher would begin by explaining to the students—perhaps in lecture format—the meaning of the rubric’s four evaluative factors and how to apply those factors to the judging of oral communication. Such explanations might also be found in students' textbooks or in other assigned readings.

Step 2: Modeling. It's often helpful for students to see "what it would look like" to actually have mastered the curricular aim. In many instances, the teacher will have provided this sort of modeling earlier in the instructional sequence, while communicating curricular expectations. However, at this stage, it is typically beneficial to students if they can see someone (not necessarily the teacher) model the successful usage of the skill, subskill, or knowledge being sought.

Step 3: Guided practice. The more demanding a curricular aim is, the greater the likelihood that students will need assistance as they begin to use the skill or body of knowledge it represents. Thus, as a teacher designs instructional activities revolving around students' practice, the teacher should be certain to build in ways she (or several of her more advanced students) might steer students toward appropriate practice. Ideally, as students become more adept in using a skill or a body of knowledge, they can monitor the quality of their own performance, referring teacher-supplied answer keys or rubrics. During the early stages of most time-on-task sequences, however, teachers must be ready to give students plenty of improvement-oriented guidance.

Step 4: Independent practice. Here’s the point at which students are supposed to "fly solo," that is, without guidance from the teacher or from peers, as they display genuine mastery of what’s present in a curricular aim. This is the phase of instruction when the research evidence supporting engaged time-on-task is especially germane. Independent practice is a truly critical component of almost any successful instructional design, as it helps ensure that students’ mastery of the sought-for skill or knowledge will be deeply engrained rather than superficially acquired.


Deciding on Practice Types and Amounts

Engaged time-on-task is a crucial component of almost any instructional sequence, but teachers also need to consider two related issues.

What type of practice? 

If a teacher regards a curricular aim as sufficiently important to pursue instructionally, the teacher obviously wants students to master that aim and master it well. This almost always means that teachers want their students to demonstrate mastery of the curricular aim in a generalizable manner. A teacher should not want students to be able to display mastery of a skill only in the particular way the teacher has chosen to measure their skill-mastery.

To illustrate, let's say you’re a teacher and the accountability test you will administer to your students calls for them to display mastery of a "main idea" comprehension skill by first reading a paragraph containing either an explicitly stated or readily inferable main idea, then selecting a reasonable statement of that main idea from a set of multiple-choice options. Obviously, you ought to give your students plenty of practice discerning main ideas by employing the sorts of multiple-choice items the accountability test will use. However, to promote students' generalizable mastery of this important reading skill, you should also have your students take part in time-on-task activities in which they must generate their own statements of a paragraph's main idea, both orally and in writing.

We want students to master skills deeply so that they can apply those skills in a variety of settings, not only in response to a single species of test item. Consequently, teachers should be sure the guided or independent practice opportunities they give their students represent a range of ways to display students' generalizable mastery of a curricular aim. There's a simple way for teachers to verify that their students are learning things in generalizable ways. If you're a teacher, just dream up a variety of ways to assess students' learning, then ask yourself this question: Based on how I am currently teaching my students, will they be able to respond correctly to the full kit and caboodle of my imagined testing techniques? If you can supply an affirmative answer, you are doing fine.

How much practice? 

This is a question for which, if there were enough classroom time available, an appropriate response might be: "The more practice time, the better!" But these days, with so much to be taught, and with so much of what's taught to be assessed via external accountability tests, most teachers simply don’t have enough classroom time to provide lengthy, languorous time-on-task sessions for their students.

What teachers need to aim for is a number of time-on-task activities sufficient to help students master a curricular aim deeply, but not so many that teachers are unable to pursue other worthwhile educational goals. Fortunately, as we'll see in the next and final instructional-design recommendation, this is an instance when teachers can use students' performances on their classroom tests to help them answer the "how much" question. Teachers can bolster their judgments about how much engaged time-on-task they need by relying on en route assessment evidence regarding their students’ current performance levels.



Marzano, R. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA.: ASCD.

Source: From Instruction That Measures Up: Successful Teaching in the Age of Accountability (Chapter 4: Instructional Design), by W.James Popham, 2009, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Adapted with permission.