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Using Time Effectively

Essentials on education data and research analysis

Educators may sometimes feel they are in a race against several clocks-the class period, the school day, the semester, the academic year, high school exit exams and so forth-as they prepare students for academic success. What can district leaders do to appropriately address issues of time and time management? How can they ensure that what is most important-student learning-is not at the mercy of things that are less urgent? As leaders weigh their options, research offers some important reminders.

All Time Is Not Created Equal

It should come as no surprise that researchers studying the relationship between time and learning have found that not all time spent in school is equal. They distinguish between allocated time, which is the total amount of time allotted to a given content area within a school day or school year, and academic learning time, the amount of time students spend working on appropriately rigorous tasks that result in actual learning. When it comes to learning, both kinds of time matter, as does appropriate instruction. Students exhibit higher levels of achievement when they spend more time engaged in instructional activities that are central to the curriculum and aligned with their readiness and ability to learn (Aronson, Zimmerman, & Carlos, 1999; Berliner, 1990).

"Policymakers interested in increasing learning, therefore, are likely to be disappointed if they apply a simple prescription of adding more time and do not attend to how it is used," cautions the American Educational Research Association. Making the most of allocated time requires that administrators effectively manage the academic calendar and the school day while ensuring that high-quality teaching occurs during classroom time (AERA, 2007).


Low-Performing Students May Need More Time

Attention to how time is used is equally important for after-school programs. If well run, these programs can be particularly helpful for low-performing students (AERA, 2007). Although research reviews "vary in their conclusions regarding academics, the most reliable reviews show that on average programs have positive impacts on important academic, social, and emotional outcomes," says Robert Granger, chair of the National Board for Education Sciences (Granger, 2008). An important factor is how extended learning time is used: If improved academic achievement is a desired outcome, then the program should include specific activities focused on academic content, says Granger.

This does not mean that after-school time spent on personal and social development is wasted. "Interventions that recognize the interdependence between youths' personal and social development and their academic development can be very effective," concluded researchers at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning who conducted a metaanalysis of research on 73 after-school programs (Durlak & Weissberg, 2007).

Deep Learning Can't Be Rushed

In the classroom, learning can suffer when teachers are pressured to cover too much content in a short amount of time. This is especially true for subjects such as math and science, which require deep conceptual learning. A 2003 study cited by AERA demonstrates the point. In the study, researchers Douglas Clark and Marcia Linn followed what happened when 3,000 eighth-grade science students, all taught by the same teacher, experienced different versions of a single curriculum. Each version covered the same content but did so within increasingly shorter time frames (12 weeks, six weeks, and three weeks). With 12 weeks of instruction, 70 percent of students performed well on multiple-choice tests and written essays. As instructional time frames shortened, students still did about as well on the multiple choice tests, but their ability to provide written explanations in response to essay questions as drastically reduced. "Packing the curriculum,"concluded Clark and Linn, "results in superficial understanding for many students."

Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia, a nonprofit education research and development organization ( For references used in this article, go to