Time On-Task

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Arguably, the primary goal of schooling is to provide students with a safe and engaging environment and ample opportunities to learn. A large portion of a student's typical school day is allocated towards providing these opportunities. However, once lunch, recess, and passing periods are accounted for, the amount of time teachers allocate for learning is far more than the amount of time students are actually engaged in learning. Martella, Nelson, and Marchand-Martella (2003) report that students only spend about 42% of their school day engaged in learning. Time on-task, also known as engaged time, is the amount of time actually spent learning (Slavin, 2003). It is important to acknowledge that engaged time is more than a behavioral concept; it also encompasses the emotional commitment to academics (VanDeWeghe, 2006). For example, students should demonstrate behaviors such as writing, participating in tasks, reading aloud, reading silently, and asking questions; they should also be attentive, interested, and invested in their learning (Greenwood, Horton, & Utley, 2002; Marks, 2000).

Some research concludes that engaged time is the most important influence on academic achievement (Greenwood et al., 2002; Marks, 2000; Slavin, 2003). According to Greenwood and colleagues (2002) academic engaged time increases through second grade and levels off through fifth grade. Conversely, off-task behavior is stable through second grade, increases momentarily through fourth grade, and then declines through fifth grade. Examples of off-task behavior include talking out of turn, walking around the class, disturbing peers, and daydreaming. Students who engage to a high degree in off-task behavior “will be unable to respond to academic opportunities or manage subject matter tasks rapidly and accurately” (Greenwood et al., 2002, p. 328). This pattern “can lead to dysfunctional school behavior [which can] ultimately culminate in some students leaving school entirely” (Marks, 2000, p. 155).

Children from specific populations seem to experience lower levels of on-task behavior than others, particularly those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD; Brock, 2005). A literature review by Junod, DuPaul, Jitendra, Volpe, and Cleary (2006) reported that children with ADHD typically struggle academically because of their lower rates of academic engagement. More specifically, they reported that these individuals experience higher rates of retention and lower grade point averages, college enrolment, and socioeconomic status. Children with ADHD are typically 2.5 times more likely to engage in off-task behavior, which was suggested by Junod and colleagues to be the most influential variable associated with academic difficulties.

It is important to acknowledge that too much emphasis on academic engagement can have adverse outcomes on learning. An overemphasis on engagement as a teaching strategy can create an environment of mock participation, within which students pretend to be on-task but are not engaged in learning. While mock participation may achieve one's desire for students to stay on task behaviorally, it can negatively impact academic achievement as it lowers students' rate of emotional engagement (Slavin, 2003).


Direct observation can be used to assess levels of on- and off-task behavior. The observation might be conducted by a teacher, teacher's aid, behavior specialist, or school psychologist. Two considerations essential to obtaining accurate data are that (a) the observation be discrete and conducted in a way that does not alter the natural environment and (b) the behavior being observed must be concrete and measurable (O'Neil et al., 1997).

Two observation techniques often used to assess engaged time are frequency (the number of times a behavior occurs) and duration (the length of time that the behavior is expressed from beginning to end) strategies. For low frequency academic engagement behaviors event or frequency data is the easiest to collect and can be done as instruction occurs. For example, a teacher can tally the number of occurrences of a behavior throughout any given week, day, hour, or minute, and a behavioral rate calculated by dividing the number of occurrences by the duration of the observation. Examples of off-task behaviors often assessed via frequency data are calling out during instruction, number of worksheets completed, and getting out of one's seat. Duration recordings measure the length of time a behavior occurs. This type of recording is best for behaviors that occur over a period of time and have a clear beginning and ending. It requires the observer to attend to the behavior throughout its duration, typically with a stop watch. Examples of off-task behaviors often assessed via duration data are moderate temper tantrums and aggressive outbursts (Browning-Wright & Gurman, 2001).

Another common strategy for measuring on-task behaviors that occur relatively frequently is momentary interval time sampling. This technique entails dividing the observational period (usually 20 minutes) into equal time intervals (e.g., one minute intervals) and recording what the student is doing at each time interval. When measuring engaged time behaviors are typically coded using one of the following four categories: on-task (O), passively off-task (P), verbally off-task (V), or actively off-task (A). Once the observation is complete, the examined behavior is divided by the number of observation periods to obtain an estimate of on- and off-task behavior. Examples of off-task behaviors often assessed via momentary interval time sampling include talking to peers, walking around the classroom, or tapping a pencil.


Transitioning from one activity to the next, although essential and inevitable, can negatively impact a student's engagement in academics (Martella et al., 2003). Effective transitions, either between-tasks or within-tasks, can have a positive effect on engaged learning as they increase allocated time and decrease the opportunity for disruptive behavior (Lee, 2006). Between-task transitions are tasks that include moving from one subject to another (e.g., math to reading, lunch to reading, or music to science; Martella et al., 2003). According to Slavin (2003) maintaining smoothness is important in decreasing the amount of time spent between tasks. Poor smoothness between tasks can cause abrupt breaks, possibly increasing disruptive behavior; instruction should be as seamless and sequential as possible. Within-tasks transitions are discrete activities that happen within a given task (e.g., passing out math worksheets during a math lesson or passing back graded papers during silent reading; Martella et al., 2003). Teachers can keep students on-task during within-task transitions by maintaining the momentum during the task. Momentum “refers to the avoidance of interruptions or slowdowns” once an activity has started (Slavin, 2003, p. 372).

In a literature review by Lee (2006), behavior momentum was examined in relation to facilitating between and within task transitions. It was found that when students are presented with several high-probability requests (i.e., those that evoke a high probability of compliance) prior to a low-probability request (i.e., those that evoke a low probability of compliance), task initiation increased and became more efficient. For example, when transitioning from silent reading to writing, a teacher could ask the students to take out a piece of paper, take out a pencil, and write their name on the paper immediately before asking the students to write about what they read; the momentum generated by positive responses to the high-probability request carried over to the low-probability request. The same idea can be used to facilitate within-task transitions in that several high-probability requests can be woven within low-probability requests to establish and maintain behavior momentum.

To alleviate the negative effects of transitions, teachers should be knowledgeable of strategies to maintain on-task behavior. Examples of such include the following:

  • Establish a consistent routine and illustrate such via a visual daily schedule (Brock, 2005).
  • Make lessons engaging and use materials that are interesting and motivating (Brock, 2005).
  • Reinforce on-task behavior and work completion (Brock, 2005).
  • Ensure that challenging lessons include relatively easy tasks (Lee, 2006).
  • Provide students with reminders as transitions approach; reminders can become more frequent as the transition approaches.
  • To maintain momentum and smoothness, avoid stopping instruction for longer than a minute to deal with missing papers, pencils, or other mild off-task behaviors (Slavin, 2003).
  • To decrease the amount of total class time spent transitioning, ask students to make transitions as a group and not individually (Slavin, 2003).


Brock, S. E. (2005). Time on-task. In S. W. Lee (Ed.), Encyclopedia of school psychology (pp. 567–568). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Browning-Wright, D., & Gurman, H. (2001). Positive intervention for serious behavior problems: Best practices in implementing the positive behavioral intervention regulations. Sacramento: California Department of Education.

Greenwood, C., Horton, B., & Utley, C. (2002). Academic engagement: Current perspectives on research and practice. School Psychology Review, 31, 328–349.

Junod, R., DuPaul, G., Jitendra, A., Volpe, R., Cleary, K. (2006). Classroom observations of students with and without ADHD: Differences across types of engagement. Journal of School Psychology, 44, 87–104.

Lee, D. (2006). Facilitating transitions between and within academic tasks: An application of behavioral momentum. Remedial and Special Education, 27, 312–317.

Marks, H. (2000). Student engagement in instructional activity: Patterns in elementary, middle and high school years. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 153–184.

Martella, R., Nelson, J., & Marchand-Martella, N. (2003). Managing disruptive behaviors in the schools. Boston: Pearson Education.

O'Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior: A practical guide. (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Slavin, R. (2003). Educational psychology: Theory and practice. Boston: Pearson Education.

VanDeWeghe, R. (2006). Research matters: What is engaged learning? English Journal, 95(3), 88–91.

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