Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Instructional Time Matters

But time keeps flowing like a river (on and on)

To the sea, to the sea
’til it's gone forever…

At least that’s what the Alan Parsons Project suggested in their hit song. But poets and songwriters aren’t the only ones seemingly consumed by the passage of time. Educators frequently talk about the concept, discussing “time-on-task,” school start and end times, and the length of the school year. What’s behind this preoccupation with instructional time? Does it matter if the school day is interrupted for pep rallies, award assemblies, announcements from the office, and the like? Isn’t the school calendar that revolves around the needs of an agrarian culture adequate for today’s students? Why does nearly every conversation with teachers end up being a discussion of time and the lack of it in classrooms?

Teachers have sound reasons for being concerned about time. More than 100 years of research suggests a significant correlation between time spent learning and the amount of learning that results. As memory expert Alan Baddeley describes it, “In short, as far as learning is concerned, you get what you pay for.”1 The relationship between this research finding and teaching may seem obvious, but let’s dive deeper into the research and its implications.
Researchers originally connected expertise in playing the violin with the amount of time spent in individual practice. They found that experts spent more than 10,000 hours practicing, while lesser experts spent about 7500 hours practicing, accomplished experts spent around 5000 hours practicing, and committed amateurs spent around 1500 hours practicing. While the numbers fluctuate slightly, the general range has remained surprisingly consistent as researchers examined expertise levels in other disciplines.2

What does this have to do with teaching? Probably more than we realize. For example, every school system I’ve encountered has significant literacy goals for students. Most schools would like to produce expert, or at least lesser expert or accomplished, readers. According to the research, developing such readers requires at least 5000 hours of practice—5000+ hours that students focus on applying and developing their reading capacity. With that in mind, let’s examine a possible scenario. If a child spends one hour each day for 175 days of the school year from grades one through eight, she will have invested approximately 1400 hours in developing reading expertise—not even enough for “committed amateur” levels! What if we add kindergarten and high school? The student still comes up woefully short at 2275 hours—not even halfway to accomplished levels.

No, this doesn’t include the time a child may spend reading at home, but it would be a rare child who actually spends the extra 2300+ hours needed to achieve “accomplished expert” levels. And to make the situation more challenging, recent research on the amount of time students actually spend reading in school classrooms ranges from a low of seven minutes to a high of 23 minutes.3 (Note that the research focuses on time spent practicingrecalling and applying skills—not on the amount of time the teacher presents information.)

Admittedly, we are not attempting to produce readers for the stage at Carnegie Hall, but this research on time and learning should not be dismissed. Time spent learning does matter for a student’s achievement. We’ve only explored this connection to developing literacy capacity, but the same would be true if applied to other disciplines. Want to develop expert mathematicians (or at least “committed amateur” mathematicians)? Time matters. Want to develop accomplished scientists (or, again, at least “committed amateur” scientists)? Time matters. The time a child spends recalling and applying learning correlates with the child’s level of expertise. When it comes to learning, time invested in recalling and applying relates to ability and achievement.

In conclusion, here are some questions to consider:
  • What are our priorities? In what areas of the curriculum are we attempting to develop more than amateur capacity? In what areas of the curriculum are we striving for more than amateur achievement?
  • How does our time (both given and devoted) reflect those priorities?
  • What is needed to increase the time students choose to spend in recall and application of new learning?
  • What are the implications of this research for our own professional development?
Share your thoughts and insights!


  1. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009), p. 70-78.
  2. Ibid.
  3. In-School Independent Reading.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

To Retain New Learning, Do the Math

Every teacher experiences the frustration. Content and skills taught throughout the year seem to abandon students during springtime standardized testing. “How can they not know this?” thinks the the teacher. “We learned this back in November.”

Recent research reveals some likely causes, and the principles for retaining new learning may not be intuitive to us as teachers. For example, multiple retrievals rather than multiple exposures promote better retention of new learning.1 In other words, the more students are required to recall new content or skills, the better their memory will be. Reviewing the material with students does not have the same effect. The students must be engaged in activity that requires them to recall the material. Even when students recall details incorrectly, if the teacher promptly provides the necessary instructive feedback, engaging students in recall of the material fosters better retention of new learning than a teacher-led review.2

But how often should teachers be engaging students in recall of newly learned material? Two findings provide answers.

First, repeated recall should occur frequently immediately following new learning. For example, a teacher who teaches students to add fractions should engage students in recall and use of that material several times over the school days immediately following instruction. Again, even if students do not recall the skill correctly, requiring recall combined with immediate instructive feedback is more effective than reviewing the skill.3

Second, once the initial period of learning and multiple retrievals is past, students still need to be engaged regularly in recall of the material. In general, students need to recall the material after a delay of 10 to 20% of the time between initial learning and final testing.4 For example, if students learn a new skill with only a month of school (about 20 school days) remaining, they should be engaged in recall of that skill every 2-4 days. This increases the likelihood that the new learning will be part of their knowledge when they begin the following school year. (Ideally, they would be recalling that skill every 7-14 days over a 10-week summer break!)

So, let’s go back to our opening scenario: a teacher teaches material in November that students need to recall for testing in May—a gap of about six months, or about 120 school days. To increase the likelihood that students will recall the material in May, they should be engaged in retrieving it every 12-24 days, once or twice a month, probably closer to every 12 days for the first few months and every 24 days for the last few months. It is critical that every retrieval be accompanied by immediate instructive feedback.

One more principle helps us design activities that engage students in retrieving new learning. The more material students are required to recall, the better. For example, if students are required to retrieve or construct an explanation of how to add fractions and actually apply the skill to add fractions, their retention will be greater than if they are merely required to apply the skill.4

According to this research, many of our classrooms may be structured for minimal memory retention. If we begin every school year reviewing material from the previous years and spend the second half of the school year introducing new material, students are less likely to retain the new learning in future school years because they were not engaged in recalling it throughout the school year. We need to be teaching more new material at the beginning of the school year and reviewing that material as the school year progresses. Perhaps this helps explain another common teacher frustration: the “They should have learned this last year” syndrome that we’ve all experienced.

Retrieval + Instructive Feedback = Retention of New Learning.

  1. Devachi, L. The Limits of Memory: How to Maximize Your Memory Trace. Presented at the 2008 North American Neuroleadership Summit, New York.
  2. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, M. C. Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009), p. 70-78.
  3. Ibid. 74.
  4. Ibid. 82.