5. Increasing
Time on Task


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Table of Contents for "Seven Principles Collection of TLT Ideas"

The fifth principle is increasing 'time on task.' " Time plus energy equals learning," wrote Chickering and Gamson. Technology can play several, very different roles:

  1. creating materials and processes that attract students to spend more time in their studies, 

  2. reducing wasted time (e.g., commuting time, standing in lines, waiting for books), and

  3. helping communicate to students how much time and energy you and your institution expect them to invest in their work. In what ways has technology been used in your courses or at your institution that, directly or directly, results in students spending more time and energy in their studies?

Related Principles:

Do you or your students ever use technology to increase time on task (or reduce wasted time) in ways you don't yet see on these pages?  Please share a description with us.  And let us know if we can include your name and email in the posting, so people can ask you questions. Send your idea to Steve Ehrmann..

The Impact of Online Assignments on the Timing of, and Time Taken by, Homework

  • Turning in homework by electronic files to a file server, or e-mailing assignments from the students home to the instructor has made it convenient for students to complete assignments on time.

  • I post all assignments on the web and students can download, answer the questions and then return to me. This eliminates the time spent by some students to retype the assignment. I also make use of interactive spreadsheets supplied with the text so students do not need to spend time hand-calculating mathematical answers. I am unsure about this, some students don't seem to understand the concept without working through the math -- any suggestions?

  • I think the ability to store work and work-in-process on the school's network and particularly to be able to access those files and folders from any internet-connected computer minimizes some of the low value time in getting to campus to access files or copying and carrying files around. These facilities also appear to have had some positive effect on minimizing lost or corrupted files on floppy disks and the time spent in recreating lost or corrupted files. Finally, the ability to send file attachments with email has made it easy for students to send me a draft of their work for feedback at any time.

  • With randomly generated homework problems, immediate feedback, and the opportunity to try again, students view the homework almost like a game with the challenge of getting all the problems correct. As a result, they seem to spend more time than with paper and pencil homework.

  • The availability of many research materials on-line and through electronic databases to which libraries subscribe should enable students to access what they need from their homes or their dorms at time which are convenient to them. Theoretically, that would seem like a time and resources savings (transportation, subscriptions, etc.) but may also encourage sloppy scholarship, procrastination, and other problems. The same types of rigorous standards for print sources can be applied to e-sources, but that does not guarantee thorough work.

Engaging Assignments Can Attract Students to Spend More Time Outside the Classroom

  • My students remark that they spend a lot more time researching web quest topics because it is "fun." They enjoy technology and many students are amazed to discover how creative they can be when presenting historical subjects in the form of web quests. Editor’s Note: I first heard about this phenomenon in the 1980s, when a faculty member I interviewed called it “capturing students’ beer time.”

  • The Blackboard course management system encourages students to spend more time on-line in discussions or chats; web searches usually seduce the user into following various serendipity paths to new material that would otherwise not have surfaced.

  • We are moving the class towards an "optional" web-based format. Currently, streaming video versions of all lectures are available on the web, so students can access the material remotely. By this summer, we'll also support online assignment submission and testing. By providing students the ability to control their grades by completing assignments and passing oral exams, our course simultaneously: a) takes more time than just about any other course (according to student reports), and b) has a higher percentage of A-grades than any other large size undergraduate course in the major. Part of the reason the course demands so much time is technology-related: just watching the lectures and the task-specific .AVI (video) files takes about 50% more time than a normal lecture-based course would demand. Add to that, the demands of interacting with the online message board, and the level gets even higher. All of these, however, are optional. From the very first day of class, our approach to students is to encourage students to do what works for them (but to be sure to do it!)  Editor's Note: Clearly this course is attracting students to spend more time on task. I can't tell, however, whether the author thinks that students spend more time on the video lectures because the medium is a weak way to watch a lecture, or whether, perhaps because students can "rewind" the professor to watch points again, it's helping them spend more time in order to better understand the professor. A good topic for a little assessment in a course like this! 

Computer Tools Can Sometimes be Used to Do the Work Faster

  • Students use computers for word processing. That goes much faster and provides more manageable revision tools than pencil/pen on paper or typewriters do.

  • Access to the Internet has changed research possibilities. Students have access to much more information faster than in the past.

  • Hot links to articles and other readings means less time searching for materials in the library. [Editor's Note: These, and electronic reserves, also save students time, compared with the days when they might have to wait for another student to finish using reserved material.]

  • In music courses, high tech ear training , music sequencing, and keyboards allow much more time experiencing the theoretical concepts being studied about harmony, rhythm, etc. We just got our lab this year - it's a sea change for us - but it will take us a long time to make it work efficiently , as the faculty learn the software, classroom management in a high tech environment, and so on.  Editor’s Note: Ear training has been traditionally done with a piano, and has required two students: one to play the note and the learner who must name the note that has been played. The use of computers for ear training, which goes back at least 15 years, can speed up this process, not least because a) the student does not need to reserve a piano, and b) does not need to find someone to play the notes.

Efficiency in Discussion: in the classroom and online (see also "1. Faculty-Student Contact")

  • E-mail seems to be a big factor. Students no longer have to negotiate appointments during office hours or other limited time slots. They can pose a question--or even ask for an appointment--at their convenience, and professors can respond in kind.

  • Some of our classes were held entirely online, in a chat environment, requiring management of time critical in order to cover the materials, therefore, off-topic conversation was minimal.

Other Ways of Saving Classroom Time

  • Class notes are posted on the class website for student review, so review of the material covered in the previous class was not necessary, saving quite a bit of time each day.

Saving Commuting Time

  • Students who live off campus do not always have to drive into campus, with limited parking to talk to their professors. E-mail messages are quickly replacing the live visit to professors and probably encouraging more students to talk to professors since it is less scary to them to write rather than face professors face to face.

  • Blackboard, again, was my best example of this - students were able to get in and discuss and find jumping off points for research as well as download assignments in ways that helped them save trips to campus to do that (or to make better use of that time on campus when they did).

  • Our students are pampered. We register them on the night of their first class, so they don't have to make a special commute. That means we have four different registrations--one for each class night (Mon, Tues, Thurs) as well as Saturday morning. The plans are in the making for designing an online system of registration which may be in use as early as next semester. We also give them the books for their next class on the last night of their previous class. Both my office and the finance office remain open each class night for their convenience. Editor’s Note: I’m not a fan of calling students “customers,” any more than I usually think of a doctor’s patients as customers.  But “pampering” seems an odd phrase to use, too.   Are we pampered when our newspapers are delivered to our homes? When the radio works every time it’s turned on?  Our ancestors might have thought so. We usually just think that convenience is part of what we’re paying for..

The Library; Electronic Reserves

  • One of the major contributions of the library has been the redirection of funding into electronic resources, which has considerably reduced time needed to travel to the library, and locate and photocopy materials. Students are also able to recall items out on loan using the electronic library catalogue. Searching for journal articles using electronic bibliographic databases has been a major time saver for students

  • We also use electronic reserves at the library which has cut down on photocopying and has made student access to reserve materials much more efficient. Students have commented on how useful they felt that access was. I have to say, since loading materials on electronic reserve, I have noted an increase in the quality and completeness of student response to reserve assignments -- they are actually READING the assigned essays! Access helps.

Helping Students Plan Their Time

  • Use of the Calendar in WebCT to promote planning by students. Can also use the Calendar to highlight particular content or web resources to be ready for in-class discussion.

  • Remind students in different media such as in-class and on-line about the expected completion dates for projects. (Virginia Arp, Gannon University)

If the Material Helps a Student Learn Better, It Can Save Time

  • Lots of visual learning. Some text explains what they see on the computer. Interactive programs allow the student the opportunity to manipulate the variables and see what happens visually.

Building 'Pacing' into Materials and Assignments

  • Student participation has been required. Students are strongly encouraged to log on to the course 3 times a week. The entire course is asynchronous so the timing of these course visits is up to the individual. 

  • Each student is required to answer weekly discussion questions; therefore, each student has to be in the material at least once a week. They have a week to respond, so they can do it when they have the most energy

  • I divide the project in milestones, and assign a new milestone each week. It works pretty much like a novel: they don’t know how it will end, and as the term progresses, they are so interested in completing the milestone at hand, that they don’t’ realize how much they are learning about a specific topic. At the end of the project, I make them look back at how and what they have learned. Technology is key in this aspect. Each milestone includes online research, sharing current articles, reading them online, participating in threaded discussions, and even testing out the software


  • One excellent way our institution has encouraged students to reduce time on task through the use of technology is through a program where every incoming student is equipped with a computer. This year, we transition to providing students with laptop computers rather than desktop (previous practice). Students are often seen carrying their laptops with them on campus, are checking email between classes, working on assignments, taking notes in class with laptops. I think this is a great demonstration of efficiency.

The Learning Curve Takes Time

  • My class is for beginning computer users so most of them have to spend "extra" time getting used to the software and its applications to their studies.

Institutional Practices That Don't Waste Students' Time

  • To reduce student "down time" our institution [Monash University, Australia] has set up an IT help desk service where students meet most - the main university centre. IT self-help tools are also available online so students don't need to wait to hear back on an IT query. Kiosks are dotted around all campuses for students to access all of their details and units, etc.

Student Time is Limited So…

  • When I assign more on-line lab exercises for students to do, I allow them more "release time" from class in order to do these things. Even with technology, I shoot for a "2 hours outside to 1 hour in class" ratio.

  • All of my online students comment that they are spending more time in the online learning environment. Editor’s Note: They may be spending more time. But it’s worth trying to using surveys, interviews, or discussion to figure how they are spending their time. Some may be spending more time because they’re unfamiliar with the medium. Some may be spending more time because instructions for assignments are not well-written for online use Some may be spending more time because they want to: the assignments are more interesting. And so on. Depending on the reasons, “spending more time” may be a) a triumph, b) a problem to be fixed, c) a temporary situation to be endured. TLT/Flashlight tools such as Flashlight Online can be useful in doing this kind of diagnostic work.

Without Data, It's Sometimes Hard to Know Whether Students Are Spending Time Productively

  • I have heard from several distance students that the course is much more time-consuming than they ever imagined but that it's well worth it. Online learning means accepting that responsibility/challenge to stay on task and sometimes that's hard when students are used to surfing the Web-- they might spend 4 hours reading, listening, being entertained, and LEARNING, but not necessarily complete whatever was assigned for the class and thus not "make the grade." Yes, they spend less time commuting and dealing w/ logistics of being on campus, and that allows for some extra time to delve into their interests; self-motivation is a great factor but even distance students can be prompted to participate on a regular basis through interaction w/ others via projects, presentations, discussions, etc, which are all easily facilitated via e-courseware.

  • Many students and faculty say that a web-enhanced course takes additional time to a class meeting--I'm not so sure this is helpful always, but may just add to the stress

P.S. Technology Sometimes can Save Faculty Time, Too

  • Going 'paperless" has saved me much time on task. I no longer need to search through piles of papers for those handed to me in the hall, or late, or in my mailbox. They are all together--in a computer file--providing I have kept up with e-mail and checking the class website and filed them then. I ALWAYS file an assignment the first time it is opened online. That was not possible with paper versions.

  • I have used a database approach to cataloging and utilizing the "teaching treasures" that have been collected over the years. This database allows me to have a much greater chance of utilizing these teaching treasures whenever they apply

  • The publisher of one of our texts provides a tutorial CD and website as well as online course support. We encourage our students to access these supplemental services.

  • With my advisees, I use our institution's web page to check transcripts, registration possibilities, and answer their questions.

Please send your suggestions, especially your TLT ideas, to Steve Ehrmann (ehrmann @ tltgroup.org).

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