Seven Principles, part five: Time on Task

This week, in our stroll through Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, we arrive at principle #5: good practice “emphasizes time on task.” To be honest, the phrase “time on task” never sat quite right with me. I associate it with the parent-teacher conferences from my elementary school years, where teachers would tell my parents that I’d be doing better if I could only spend more “time on task.” In seventh grade, I was a regular in after-school detention, where my English teacher repeatedly admonished me about needing to spend the proper amount of “time on task.” I’ve always associated the phrase with the impulse to police student behavior, to set some sort of arbitrary bar about how much time a students should be working on something, and then treating that bar as more important than the results of the work itself. As it turns out, though, there is another way to look at the idea of “time on task.”

In Chickering and Gamson’s view, time on task is a non-negotiable. “Time plus energy equals learning,” they argue; “There is no substitute for time on task.” This is a particularly important part of student success for larger assignments and projects. Various student engagement surveys suggest that students are likely not spending the type of time on coursework that we’d like to see. While the typical rule of thumb has long been two or three hours of work outside of class for every hour inside the classroom, most students report spending less than one hour on work out of class. For semester-long projects, such as research papers and the like, this can be a dangerous approach. Often, students who end up doing poorly on these assignments are those who waited until the last minute to begin the work, trying to condense 10-12 weeks’ worth of research and writing into two days. We also see, by far, the largest proportion of academic dishonesty cases stemming from this type of avoidance and the bad decision-making processes it engenders. So how do we encourage not just time on task for projects like these, but time on task consistently throughout the semester in order to be successful? One method is to break up larger assignments into smaller components and have students complete these benchmarks at regular intervals throughout the term. For example, a research paper assignment might have a topic proposal, a working bibliography, a source analysis, an outline, and a rough draft that could be intermediate assignments, leading up to submission of the final paper. If a student misses these earlier deadlines, it helps us intervene before it’s too late. By completing these various components throughout the semester, students are ensuring that they’re spending enough time to be successful in their final project. Moreover, by having them submit work at various checkpoints, and providing feedback and suggestions for the next steps, we’re also likely to see better-quality work at the end of the semester. In this case, creating this type of scaffold around a particular assignment is a way to maximize our students’ odds of spending enough time on task.

Another common example of the “time on task” conundrum is the relatively little time we actually spend in contact with our students in the classroom. In a typical semester-long face-to-face class, we have something like 43 hours of total contact time (depending on whether we teach MWF or TTH). If that’s all we have, how do we ensure that students get to spend enough time on the most essential parts of the course material and activities? One answer is to adopt a “flipped class” pedagogy, where we have students do the basic “content acquisition” on their own time (often through readings, video lectures or demonstrations, and other online resources) and then use class time for the type of activities that cannot be done individually. One benefit of “flipping” is in the way it can make us think deeply about our course design and classroom practices, and force us to ask if we are spending our (limited) contact time in ways that provide the most benefit for our students. For more on the philosophy and logistics behind flipped learning, see this post.

As we ponder how best to create ways for our students to invest the requisite amount of time to be successful in our courses, here are some further resources on the topic:

From North Central State College, a brief guide to some best practices around time allocation.

This list of strategies from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga addresses both face-to-face and blended/online classes.

Finally, this 2013 piece from the Educause Review contains some interesting ideas on how we can use technology to fulfill the aims of this particular principle of good practice in undergraduate education.


Don’t forget this week’s Conversations on Teaching, “Care and Feeding of Classroom Discussions.” If you’re wondering how to add more discussion and active learning activities to your classes, or looking for ways to sustain and expand on the discussions your students are already having, this interactive workshop will give you plenty of food for thought. We hope you’ll join us Tuesday afternoon, from 4-5 PM in the CETL.

Finally, sometimes we all need co-conspirators to help us out of a jam, no matter how unlikely they may be:

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