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About Time

23 January 2022

A short post about time and mastery.

All human beings can learn well. But all human beings learn from different models, metaphors, examples and instruction. And, crucially, all human beings learn at different rates.

In a mastery approach, time is the key variable.

Time is used in many different ways in schools. Cotton's Educational Time Factors provides a useful summary:

ALLOCATED TIME is the amount of time specified for an activity or event. When educators and educational researchers speak of allocated time, they are referring to one of the following three elements:

ALLOCATED TIME 1: SCHOOL TIME - the amount of time spent in school. When used this way, allocated time may refer to the number of school days in a year or the number of hours in a school day.

ALLOCATED TIME 2: CLASSROOM TIME - the amount of time spent in the classrooms within the school (i.e., excluding lunch, recess, time spent changing classes, etc.).

ALLOCATED TIME 3: INSTRUCTIONAL TIME - the portion of classroom time spent teaching pupils particular knowledge, concepts, and skills pertaining to school subjects (i.e., excludes routine procedural matters, transitions, and discipline).

ENGAGED TIME, or TIME-ON-TASK, refers to portions of time during which pupils are paying attention to a learning task and attempting to learn. This excludes time spent socialising, daydreaming, engaging in antisocial behaviour, etc.

ACADEMIC LEARNING TIME (ALT) refers to the portion of engaged time that pupils spend working on tasks at an appropriate level of difficulty for them and experiencing high levels of success (excludes time spent engaged in tasks which are too easy or too difficult).

DEAD TIME - refers to periods of classroom time during which there is nothing pupils are expected to be doing; that is, time which the teacher has failed to manage in any way.

Allocated time, "tells you something about values," that is, the values of a district, school, or teacher are implicit in the relative amounts of time allocated to different activities.

Instructional time "tells you something about classroom organisation and management." In other words, the time actually available for and spent in teaching is indicative of the teacher's ability to organise instructional activities and expedite non-instructional ones.

Dead time measures also permit inferences about the teacher's organisation / management skills.

Time-on-task, "tells you something about teaching," that is, it reveals the teacher's skill in selecting learning activities which engage pupils' attention and in keeping them focused.

ALT "tells you something about learning," in that it refers to situations in which pupil and learning material are well-matched and learning is occurring in a fairly ideal fashion.

There are large differences in instructional time allocations across schools and classrooms - pupils in one school or classroom may experience three or more times as much mathematics instruction as those in another setting.

Honzay (1986-87) and Karweit (1984, 1985) found that only about half the typical school day is actually used for instruction. 

Anderson (1983); Fredrick, Walberg, and Rasher (1979); and Seifert and Beck (1984), find that pupils spend only about half their in-class time actually engaged in learning activities.  McCourt (2019) found that pupils in high performing schools spend an additional 480 hours engaged in learning activities over the course of their time in school when compared to pupils in average performing schools.

There is a small positive relationship between allocated time (however measured) and pupil achievement.

There is a positive relationship between time-on-task and pupil achievement; this relationship is stronger than the allocated time-achievement relationship, but is still modest.

There is a strong positive relationship between academic learning time (ALT) and both pupil achievement and attitudes.

Time-on-task in interactive activities with a teacher produces greater achievement and better attitudes than time-on-task in seatwork.

Interactive activities include:

  • The use of immediate feedback and correctives in classroom recitations
  • Focused questions, praise, and reinforcement
  • Listening and thinking during classroom interactions
  • Discussion/review, reading aloud, verbal drill and practice

Seatwork is most beneficial to pupils when teachers prepare activities carefully, manage seatwork efficiently, supervise it actively, and give pupils help and feedback in such a way that other pupils are not disturbed.

Time-on-task in seatwork activities is most beneficial when pupils' thoughts are focused on specific cognitive strategies.

The success of mastery learning programs in promoting learning gains is due largely to the extra amounts of quality time-on-task expended by pupils in these programs.

Appropriate kinds and amounts of homework raise achievement levels, but only for pupils above primary grades.

Homework is most beneficial when it is:

  • Relevant to learning objectives
  • Appropriate to pupils' ability and maturity levels
  • Assigned regularly
  • Assigned in reasonable amounts
  • Well explained and motivational
  • Collected and reviewed
  • Used to give feedback

ATTAINMENT is the point that a pupil has reached in learning a discipline. It can change; pupils can unlearn as well as learn. It is not precise. But it is very useful in determining appropriate points on a curriculum from which to springboard pupils to new learning. We, as educators, continually assess these attainment points so as best to ensure the curriculum we are following can adapt and flex to what has been understood or forgotten. Knowing the prior attainment of pupils (rather than what has been previously presented at them) is crucial if we are to ensure pupils are learning appropriate new ideas and concepts.


ABILITY is an index of learning rate. It is the readiness and speed at which a pupil can grip a new idea. It can change; as with all human beings, pupils will make meaning from some metaphors, models or examples, more readily than they will of others. In maths, for example, we often see pupils quickly understanding some numerical pattern, say, who then take a long time to grip a geometrical relationship. An individual can have a high index of learning rate during some periods of their life and a low one at others. Again, as educators, we are continually assessing ability so that we are able to best judge the amount of time, additional practice, new explanations or support that a pupil needs in order to really grip an idea. Knowing the ability of a pupil (rather than woolly ideas of engagement or enjoyment) is crucial is we are to ensure that pupils are learning new ideas and concepts for the appropriate amount of time (rather than some arbitrary amount of time presented on a scheme of work).


POTENTIAL is an index of the advancement a particular pupil can make in learning a discipline given the right conditions, viz. expert instruction from the teacher, sincere effort from the pupil, and the appropriate amount of time. This is, effectively, limitless. All pupils can learn well, given the right conditions.

Increasing allocated or engaged time is more beneficial to lower-ability pupils than to higher-ability pupils.

Higher-ability pupils benefit from increases in allocated and/or engaged time very slightly, if at all.

Increasing time-on-task reduces the anxiety and enhances the achievement of highly anxious pupils.

Increasing time-on-task is more beneficial in the more highly structured subjects, such as mathematics and foreign languages, than in the less structured ones, such as language arts and social studies.

Increasing time allocations for particular subjects within classrooms can be beneficial to pupils needing additional help if that time is devoted to the use of effective instructional strategies.

Achievement benefits result when teachers work with their pupils in such a way as to reduce the time needed for learning.

How we use TIME has a profound impact on learning. Mastery is about teaching in such a way that ALL pupils learn well. It takes both the right amount of time and the purposeful use of that time.  It requires teachers to understand the difference between ability, attainment and potential, and to keep the highest standards and expectations of all pupils to learn well, rather than promoting the entirely false idea that there are pupils who can learn well and pupils who cannot.  It requires teachers to understand that spending time with pupils or even keeping pupils busy on tasks is not the same thing as meaningful time spent learning.  It requires pupils to understand the part they play in their own learning and to engage, with sincere effort and dogged determination, in academic learning time.


...for now, that is all I have time for...

...And this paper is also worth a read...

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