Around the Web: Time on Task

In the Washington Post last week, Daniel de Vise discussed new findings that the amount of time college students spend studying, reading or otherwise preparing for class is about 60% of what it used to be. Possible culprits include softer academic standards, increases in study efficiency thanks to technology, and more demands on students’ time from extracurriculars, jobs, and commuting.
Efficiency sounds like a red herring to me—sure, new technologies help students process information faster, but there’s a lot more information out there these days, and the Illinois Academic Libraries research has proven that students tend to process it very, very superficially. Instead, we should take better account of how new technologies redefine study time. The flipped classroom, for example, turns the problem-solving and quiet study that we used to call “studying for class” into an in-class activity, rendered more efficient by the presence of peers and the instructor and the absence of distractions like tv and Facebook. Studies of the teaching software developed by Carnegie Mellon researchers compare a traditional 3-to-4-hour-a-week stats class to a hybrid class that combines the software with just one session (usually an hour) of live instruction a week. The results? Students learn more efficiently with the software: it takes fewer total hours for them to show the same learning gains.

Since the hybrid course involved fewer hours of face-to-face instruction, though, students reported spending more time working on the course “on their own” than did their peers in the traditional course. This tips the scale back toward the ideal, in which students spend at least three hours working on a course for every one hour of face-to-face class time. In a way, students in the hybrid course could be said to have spent more time studying, where “studying” means not just reading or doing practice problems but interacting with educational software. I’d be curious to see whether the software helped them focus better than reading a textbook, too—whether students found it easier to tune out background distractions when they had to interact with the software. It certainly seems to have encouraged more regular study: students who chose to take the hybrid courses tended to spread their work more evenly over the week, while students in the traditional courses tended to put in a marathon study session on the weekend. Students in the hybrid course were also more likely to give it a higher difficulty rating. (Incidentally, students in the hybrid model found it less fun. The study’s authors acknowledge that their software could stand to be more entertaining for students. For inspiration, they need look no further than Joseph Blitzstein’s wildly popular Statistics 110.)

Further food for thought on the topic of the quality of students’ attention and focus: the Harlem Children’s Zone credits its success not to any gimmicks or secret tricks but to determined “hard work over the long haul”; and attending a highly selective college might seem to give you an income boost, but the difference in lifetime earnings actually correlates more closely with an individual’s motivation and ambition than with the logo on her diploma.

In thinking about these or any other studies, we would do well to keep in mind Gary Thomas’s recent essay in the Harvard Educational Review, which reminds us that scientific inquiry is a flexible tool and, if it is to be profitably used, must be adapted appropriately. Education science, Thomas argues, needs to advance not by the accumulation of permanent facts, but by “the cultivation of provisional, tentative models for interpretation and analysis. […] The impulse automatically to make abstract constrains our capacity and curtails our desire to research—to look more deeply at—the individual situation and to reflect on that situa­tion in order to improve practice.” Like economics and meteorology, which often face far too many data points to predict the future with any accuracy, or astronomy, where meaningful conjectures often develop not through experiment but through studying just one source of information in great detail, or paleoanthropology, whose discoveries are both fortuitous and deliberate, education science often depends on contextual experience and circumstantial evidence—it is a form of play.

It helps to have a framework for cultivating those models. Tomorrow’s Professor has posted a chapter from Tina Stavredes’s Effective Online Teaching: Foundations and Strategies for Student Success that provides a fantastic overview of the four major learning theories of the past 50 years. (The book is about online teaching, but the excerpt is about pedagogy more generally.) Can you say offhand whether your teaching style is rooted in behaviorism, cognitivism, cognitive constructivism, or social constructivism? No? Then read this chapter.

This post was written by Odile Harter.

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