Skip to main content
Ed. Magazine

Does it Matter How Teachers Use Class Time?

The short answer is, it does
Hourglass illustration by Andrea Ucini
Illustration: Andrea Ucini

Should a teacher lecture? Open up the class to big discussions? Let students work indpendently or mostly in small groups? This past winter, Associate Professor Eric Taylor spoke to Ed. about a paper he co-published last summer in the Economics of Education Review that delves into the complexities and nuances of how teachers manage their classroom time, and, in turn, the impact those decisions have on student learning. 

Can you give us a quick rundown of the process of your study?  
This paper focuses on teachers’ choices about how to allocate class time across different instructional activities. We studied 250 teachers and their 7,000 students, in England’s public (state) secondary schools. Each teacher was observed eight times over two school years, on average. From those class observations we have time allocation data on a dozen different activities. Those activities fall into four groups: direct instruction, student-peer interaction, personalized instruction, and practice and assessment. We then link each teacher’s class time use data to her students’ test scores at the end of the school year — the GCSE English and math exams, taken at age 14–16. 

What did you find?  
Students learn more math skills (score higher on their exams) when their teacher devotes more class time to individual practice and assessment. In contrast, students learn more language skills when their teacher devotes more class time to discussion and work in groups of students. Despite that difference, we find that the average math teacher and average English teacher make very similar choices about how to allocate class time. 

What sparked your interest in research, particularly focusing on class time allocation?  
Every year there are students who learn more math, language, and other skills than their peers in the classroom next door because they were lucky enough to get assigned to a more effective teacher. Those lucky students will go on to have more success as adults in college and in the workforce. Understanding why some teachers are more effective than others is an urgent long-standing challenge.

Class time allocation has not been previously studied as we do in this paper. Our data provide a rare opportunity to link class time-use data to student achievement scores for a large sample of both teachers and students.

Learning how best to allocate class time is a skill. But it differs from the kind of skills typically studied by researchers or taught in professional development. Teachers’ choices about how to allocate class time may be easier to change through direction from school leaders or easier to teach to novices. 

Are there other possible explanations for learning beyond how teachers use class time?  
You might be skeptical. Perhaps math teachers who spend more class time on individual practice are also teachers who are more skilled at asking good questions or managing student behavior. Perhaps those questioning or management skills are the true cause of students learning more, and class time choices are simply correlated. If that were true, we could ask a less-skilled teacher to increase class time for individual practice, but there would be no change in his students’ test scores. 

Our research addresses that skepticism. We can compare teachers who have the same level of general teaching skills but who allocate class time differently. We have data on each teacher’s time use. But we also have data on each teacher’s instructional effectiveness using the Framework for Teaching classroom observation rubric. In statistics jargon, even after we control for the teacher’s instructional effectiveness, class time use still predicts student achievement. Even among high-skilled math teachers, some allocate more time to individual practice, and their students learn more math. The same is true for low-skilled math teachers. And there is a parallel pattern for English teachers. The practical implication is that students would likely gain (or lose) from changes in class activities even if their teacher’s general teaching skills did not change. 

Did you have any “aha” moments doing this research?  
The differences between math and English were most striking to me. Perhaps more-experienced educators are not surprised by the difference. But, at least in our data, both math and English teachers allocated class time in similar ways. For example, both the average math teacher and average English teacher allocated the same amount of class time to “student peer interaction.” English scores were higher in classes with more peer interaction, but math scores were not.

Will there be follow-up research?  
Our results are encouraging, but just one study. We are in the early stages of a field experiment where teachers or schools, randomly assigned to the treatment group, would change how they allocate class time, while other teachers or schools continue their current approach (the control group). If anyone reading this is interested in participating in such an experiment, reach out. 

Heather Corn is a writer based in Ohio. Her last piece for Ed. looked at cARTie, the nonprofit mobile art museum bus created by Clare Murray, Ed.M.’20

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles