Calling All Researchers: How Do We Use Class Time?

In our continued effort to bring additional perspectives to Eduflack’s discussion of education reform, following is a guest blog post from John Jensen, Ph.D.  We’ll be seeing a few more posts from Dr. Jensen later this week …

There are at least two good reasons for doing research about educational methods. One is for adults to decide whether or not to employ a particular strategy or condition. The other is to motivate students directly to alter what they do. If, for instance, you tell a boy playing basketball “You completed 70% of your passes today. Let’s see how you do tomorrow,” he is likely to think for the entire game about passing accurately so he gets to 80%.

By stimulating this motive, we can engage students in many ways to take objective account of themselves, teaching them communication skills, concentration, and classroom cooperation by means of specific, countable behaviors. I note several in my book (cf. below). To help adults decide what to do with classroom time, however, I’d like to suggest a study that could be valuable to your district.

First you need an idea or hunch to test out that makes theoretical sense. Your selection depends on the limitations you accept in your thinking. For a while after I discovered that the ERIC files contained over a million references, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of research. Then I discovered that it seldom influenced anyone; that instead people usually had an idea about what they wanted to do and chose the research that supported it. I surmised, maybe incorrectly, that we might just cut to the chase and do what we want to in the first place.

But to encourage rationality, I’m moved to welcome research. The fact that education has not yet been transformed despite the million pieces in ERIC hints that the field still awaits a transforming idea.

What theory do we want to test out?

We want something completely under our power and control to alter, first of all. There’s no point in studying the height and weight of our students if there’s nothing we can do about what we find; or their parentage or race or a myriad of other characteristics of students, teachers, and the situation. We want something that we can vary due to the data we get, so we look carefully at our own options, our flexibility of response..

One thing we can vary is our use of classroom time. We can specify so many minutes for this and this, alter the numbers, and see what happens to our results. If more of this and less of that shows different results in learning, then we’d like to be able to tell that to our teachers because, come Monday, they might shift gears that way.

The study I’d like to propose first is about the amount of time students spend recalling what they learn. The outcome can lead directly to something controllable, a specific use of time, this over that. And the conduct of the study can be objective and fair, measured with minutes spent and tallied.

And the theory? Making it a good candidate for a study is a core understanding about skill development: practice makes perfect. And practicing knowledge essentially means calling it up and expressing it. I was impressed many years ago when undergoing training as an ROTC officer. One class concerned how to train recruits in skills they needed. Our instructor passed on to us a statistic developed by the military’s long experience. To train someone in any skill, he said, spend 5% of the time explaining, 10% demonstrating, and 85% practicing. Applying this to a classroom, one uses about five times as much time practicing what’s presented as time spent presenting it. This fit with a report I encountered back in the 1960s in which researchers investigated the uses of time in the classroom leading to the most permanent learning. Their finding was that the most effective means was the effort to recall used with between 40% and 80% of class time. .

Despite the long-established effect of practice (top performers in any field practice more), there appears to have been a decision made decades ago by the teaching profession to avoid it. Its role instead was to present knowledge and it was up to students–if they were so motivated–to practice and learn it through completing the homework assigned (an assumption that has not proven out). Teachers were led to believe that class time was so limited that they could not allocate any significant portion of it just to deepening students’ learning.

So how could you set up a study about practice during class time? A district with two or more of any kind of school could do it this way: Select one school for the study and another with matching characteristics as a control. Pair up classrooms with comparable results, teacher competence, and teaching methods by subject and grade.

Reading. Students in the study school spend half the allotted time explaining to a partner what they just read (a quarter of the total time for each partner), and connecting it to everything they read before. In the control school, all the time is just for reading.

Math. Students in the study school spend 1/3 of the time per hour listening to the teacher explain ideas or reading in order to input definitions, formulas, and explanations; and 2/3 of the time explaining to a partner what they gathered. In the control school, teachers use their customary methods.

Social studies: Students in the study school read or listen to lectures or media presentations and take notes on them in question and answer form for 1/3 of the available time. For 2/3 of the time they ask and answer the questions with each other. In the control school, teachers use their customary methods.

If teachers experience discipline problems and object that they cannot hold their students to specified times at anything, this simply stretches the spectrum of results. Provide all teachers with a kitchen timer and ask them to track to the second the key variable, the amount of time students do spend explaining their learning to a partner. My prediction is that a correlation will hold along the entire spectrum–the less practice time, the less learning.

The district staff may want to assess many outcomes, but the primary one should be the sheer retention of learning. A valid way to do this is, at the end of the study period, with no preparation nor forewarning, to make a single request of students about each subject–reading, math, and social studies: Write down all you can remember about the subject that you have learned since the beginning of the study.

What you will get is a direct report of the conscious, usable knowledge students possess (distinct from their passive knowledge dependent on someone else asking them a question or giving them hints). It can be quantified by (e.g.) their number of lines of writing, the time it takes them to write it, and (if you want to be more particular) the number of points of knowledge their writing contains. A point of knowledge here is a question answered at the level one would put it on a test, essentially one sentence of independent knowledge. The only caveat is to apply the same measure to both the control and study schools.

After such a study, the district should be able to tell its teachers “If you adopt the 1/3-2/3 method, you’ll increase student learning by 50%“ or some such figure. I’m optimistic here, since students retain almost no proactive knowledge without the practice and typically rely on forewarning so they can cram.

If you want to nudge your district in this direction, please let me know. We need more empirical thought in education, and the ERIC database is working on its second million.

(John Jensen is a licensed clini
cal .psychologist and author of The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success (Xlibris, 2008), which he will email without charge as an ebook to anyone requesting it. He invites comments sent directly to him at  The opinions are strictly Dr. Jensen’s.)

138 thoughts on “Calling All Researchers: How Do We Use Class Time?

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