Meaningful time on task: Practical guidelines for implementing CompassLearning software


Time on task is an important variable in schools that directly relates to students’ learning and achievement. On average in the US in the 2006-2007 school year (McMurrer, 2007), students spent 101 minutes per day in language arts, 65 minutes in mathematics, 36 minutes in social studies, 36 minutes in science, 22 minutes in art and music, 21 minutes in physical education, 28 minutes at lunch, and 27 minutes at recess. This is an increase in instructional time of 46% for language arts and 37% for mathematics compared to the 2001-2002 school year (when No Child Left Behind was enacted) and is a decrease of 31% of instructional time for the other subjects (relative to 2001-2002). Instructional time should directly relate to the goals of instruction and learning.

But meaningful time on task is a misnomer because it is not exactly about time; learning in schools is about completing tasks that directly relate to the goals of instruction. These lesson tasks tend to be either open-ended, such as developing critical thinking skills or improving composition skills or alternatively are tightly focused, such as covering content on a high stakes state-wide test. For example, a recent evaluation conducted in seven schools in the Pemberton School District, reported a relationship between the number of CompassLearning lesson activities completed and performance on the New Jersey state-wide test. On average, students gained 1 scaled-score point for every 13.0 CompassLearning reading lessons and 1 scaled-score point for every 12.4 CompassLearning mathematics lessons completed. Whether the goal is broad in intent or tightly focused, stating the goal for online instruction and then completing lessons that address that goal are crucial.

Because of the relationship between time and learning, time is a significant limiting factor in schools today (Clariana, 1998; Horn, 2007; McMurrer, 2007). Teachers and students must ‘cover’ an extensive amount of material in different subject areas at every grade level. Taking time in the school day to do one important thing takes away time to do another important thing (footnote 1). So like it or not, meaningful time on task when learning with educational software is about efficiency. Efficiency involves teaching students what they don’t know and not wasting time teaching the same thing twice unless there is a good reason. This requires careful planning on what can be covered and meticulous implementation to make sure that it is covered. Percolator Bongs

footnote 1 ILS Resource Guide (2004). The most frequent downfall of ILSs is insufficient use. Community Technology Centers (CTCs) complained that they could have achieved better results if they had more time to spare for ILS practice. School administrators complain that teachers do not use the ILS often enough. And researchers suspect that inconclusive studies about whether ILSs help students learn are related to implementing the software correctly, including allocating enough time for use (America Connects Consortium, June 2005; Van Dusen & Worthen, 1995).

To complicate the issue, students working online on mastery-based lesson tasks (footnote 2) move at their own pace, and some students are more than twice as fast as others, thus completing twice as many tasks when given the same amount of time online (Clariana, 1992). This means that planning for meaningful time on task is not a one-time event, students’ progress is dynamic and so requires constant (i.e., weekly) attention.

footnote 2 The underlying assumption is clear, more time equals more learning. It is well established that computer delivered mastery-based lesson are effective. Kulik (1994, 2003) in his meta-analysis of several hundred published studies of computer-based instruction concluded that on average, students working part of the time on computers compared to control conditions without computers: (a) learn more quickly, (b) develop more positive attitudes about their classroom instruction, and (c) learn more. Similarly, Becker (1992) reported a conservatively corrected average mathematics effect size = .40 (equivalent to an increase from the 50th percentile to the 66th percentile) and reading effect size of 0.18. Schacter (1999) suggests that such gains relate to computer-based instruction capability to individualize instruction in different ways.

So how do you implement CompassLearning software? Imagine for a moment that two teachers have been assigned to co-teach 5th grade mathematics in their school. Each teacher is allowed a 30-minute block of time every day. How could this work? By answering this question, we can provide practical guidelines for implementation of CompassLearning software in your school.

How Would Two Teachers Coordinate and Deliver Lessons?
First, they must analyze the required content knowledge and skills (and attitudes?) that their students must learn and then establish an approximate scope and sequence for the year. Next, based on the unique skill and capability of each teacher, they should divvy up the content that each will deliver so that they complement each other, and also develop a combined assessment and remediation plan to help monitor success and progress. Next, each week they must meet to determine how it is going, where there are problems with particular content or for specific students, and then determine how to address these problems, for example re-teaching a topic to the whole class or adding a subordinate topic to the scope and sequence to augment a poorly learned topic or skill.

Besides ongoing course adjustments, inevitably, one or the other teacher will go faster or slower than planned and so scope and sequence meetings will be required to make substantial adjustments (maybe monthly) or at least to check that the scope and sequence still makes sense. In these meetings, the teachers must determine if the enacted curriculum meets their goals. These likely major course corrections will be especially critical in the first year.

Over time, the enacted curriculum and the goals of instruction will become more aligned. Also as the two teachers get to know each other well, they will complement each other more-and-more. These broad suggestions apply not only to co-teaching situations, but also make sense when one of the teachers is the CompassLearning program.

A Note to CompassLearning Education Consultants
In a professional development session, you should consider using the above scenario in a training activity. Teachers already know how to co-teach. Have teachers pair up and come up with a list of ideas for how they would co-teach a specific area of the curriculum (e.g. language arts, science) at their grade level. Then have them present their ideas to the group. These ideas will probably be very similar to those above regarding the importance of goal setting, planning, teaching, assessment, monitoring, and remediation. When done, say ok, imagine the CL software is your co-teacher; take 15 minutes together to apply these ideas you reported to co-teaching with a computer. This activity can reframe teachers’ stereotypes of computer lessons and will emphasize the critical role of planning and monitoring for reaching instructional/learning goals.

Some Broad Principles to Keep in Mind
Here are some broad suggestions to consider when implementing CompassLearning software, or any new curriculum:
  • Set high but appropriate expectations (footnote 3). If the teacher sets high expectations, students are more likely to try to achieve those expectations.

footnote 3 If the software is set at the wrong level or on the wrong task, some students will ‘game’ the ILS into repeating easy lessons in order to look good. Skinner and Belmont (1991) develop the definition further, noting that students who are motivated to engage in school “select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest” (p. 3). Less motivated or disengaged students, on the other hand, are “passive, do not try hard, and give up easily in the face of challenges” (Skinner & Belmont, 1991, p. 4).

  • Student motivation is important. Teachers should talk up the value of computer time and how it aligns with the classroom, and avoid complaining about the software in front of students. For example, imagine the negative effects on students if one teacher constantly put down or denigrated another teacher or the positive effect of boasting about another teacher. Motivating students (footnote 4) is essential in any learning setting.


  • Planning is critical. If teachers and software programs do not deliver the right content and skills, then the students will not achieve the desired goals.
  • Do what you do best. If there is a choice, then the teacher should handle what they teach best and the computer should do what it does best. Though it may seem contrary, computers have been shown to be very effective for teaching mathematics concepts (which has a strong active visual component) and teachers are effective at teaching computation skills (Clariana, 1996). Set aside your learned bias that computer instruction equals drill-and-practice and then ask yourself what computer instruction has been effective for YOU personally?
  • The Goldilocks’ Principle. If the teacher rushes through the curriculum (perhaps to have time for the fun stuff), then some students will be left behind; or alternately if the teacher moves too slowly then the top performing students likely will not do as well. Pace and challenge must be “just right”.
  • An unwatched pot always burns. If the teacher takes a break during ‘computer time’, this sends a clear message to students that the computer lessons are not important. Besides sending the message that CompassLearning lessons are a true part of classroom instruction, students need spot help with some activities. By watching over shoulders, teachers can determine broad deficits and can address these off-line in whole class or small group situations. Also, when teachers ‘see’ the lesson activities in real time, they can better understand how the software works (i.e., the underlying instructional principles) and this knowledge will influence their practice (footnote 5) as they emulate what works.

footnote 5 McCutchen, Harry, Cunningham, Cox, Sidman, and Covill (2002). As an artifact, the software lessons encapsulate distributed intelligence that can affect teacher and student cognition. For example, teachers may or may not have knowledge of the recent findings regarding the role of phonological awareness or how to implement the findings onto their reading instruction, but the application of it is built into the software by the instructional designers, and in fact if teachers mimic the onscreen lessons, they will be practicing what works.

  • Reading Begets Reading and Learning (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). Except for the early learning lessons, all CompassLearning lessons, not just the language arts lessons, require that students’ read. Thus, thirty minutes of CompassLearning science lessons equals 30 minutes of reading in the science content area. When students who dislike online lessons are asked why, the most common response is “It makes me read”. The US will soon be in really big trouble because most students do not like to read any more

footnote 6 ILS Resource Guide (2004). Henry Jay Becker, after completing a comparative study of ILSs in two elementary schools in the same district Josten’s Learning software in West Virginia, concluded that, “the single teacher who was most successful in using an ILS with her students was the one who (a) was particularly knowledgeable about the content of the instructional software and the computerized management system that ran it; (b) made use of that knowledge by overriding automated placement of assignments to students; (c) was able to summarize in her head important commonalities in the problems that students were having when using the programs; and (d) orchestrated classroom time to provide remediation to the class or specific groups within the class, based on the problems that were manifested during computer time” (Becker, 1994). Van Dusen & Worthen support this idea, stating that an effective teacher “…must learn how to select and schedule the most valuable learning events at the most appropriate times” (Van Dusen & Worthen, 1995; Mageau, 1992).

Professional Development (footnote 6)
Learning to operate the management system and print reports is not enough to effectively implement CompassLearning software (footnote 7). The education consultant must work with administration as partners to persuade teachers why it is important to print and use the system reports. After a year of real effort by the teacher, it becomes much easier. But if the teacher puts no effort into planning and monitoring, then they will get the same result every year.

footnote 7 ILS Resource Guide (2004). Many researchers repeated that the key to increasing academic achievement is implementation: whether or not teachers actually integrate the ILSs into their teaching (Becker, 1994; Foshay, 2000; Hativa, 1994; Mageau, 1992; Mills, 1999; Robinson, 1992; Van Dusen & Worthen, 1994). The most effective use occurs when instructors have a complete understanding of the ILS, the breadth of its content, and its features, and can apply this knowledge to individual students. An important issue to consider with powerful management systems is that the teacher/administrator knows what data to request and is able to interpret the results to guide meaningful decision-making.

Also, though teachers may know how to plan a scope and sequence and may be able to do some planning using paper-based CompassLearning curriculum manuals, the actual software lessons are less visible than textbook lessons and require substantial time for preview since these lessons exist in real time. Teachers need time to preview lessons in order to plan effectively. It may be possible to bring in a proven CompassLearning lesson curriculum sequence developed at the district level or at another school, but your teachers will still need buy in time to make it their own.
Also, education consultant should present the research base and successful case examples from other schools in order to persuade teachers that the time and effort they spend on CompassLearning will be worth it to their students.