The results of a German study of 39 fifth grade math classes near Munich, Germany (Helmke and Schrader, Max-Planck Institute for Psychological Research, Germany) indicate there is no direct correlation between the amount of time spent on seatwork and academic achievement. However, other conditions in the classroom did influence the effectiveness of seatwork.
Helmke and Schrader state the the purpose of seatwork practice is the consolidation of newly acquired knowledge and skills and increased automatization in the use of skills. Automatization of skills (such as memorization of math facts) is important because it allows students to concentrate more completely when learning new tasks. It is especially important for slower or younger students and for all students in highly structured subjects, such as math, where all new skills depend on previous learning.
No link between amount of seatwork and achievement
No information was provided concerning how classes were chosen for this study. Apparently, all the 5th grade math classes in 39 schools in the Munich area were included. However, the 39 teachers were compared with a random sample of 651 math teachers in Germany, and no significant differences were seen. The curriculum for all the classes was essentially the same. Students were tested at the beginning and end of 5th grade with two tests developed to measure computation skills and word problems.
There were significant differences among the classes, both in the amount of seatwork and in the management of the seatwork. The amount of time spent on seatwork was not a significant factor in the level of achievement. However, the manner in which the teacher managed this activity did differentiate between high achieving and low achieving classes.
The seatwork in classes of teachers who were successful in creating high student achievement was characterized by:
1.) Sufficient preparation. Before an assignment was given, students had the minimum skills necessary. They understood the task sufficiently to the extent that the teacher did not have to answer questions frequently.
2.) Efficient management. Non-academic activities and disruptions were kept to a minimum.
3.) High intensity of active supervision that supported and corrected students in a discreet rather than a “public” manner. Students receiving help were not embarrassed, and other students were not distracted.
Intensive supervision means that the teacher moves around among students, interacts one to one and inspects work frequently. Successful teacher contact with students during independent seatwork is usually very brief – no longer than 30 seconds. Longer interactions may indicate that the initial explanation wasn’t adequate. Teachers who spend longer time with each student have less time to supervise the rest of the class.
Helmke and Schrader believe that the one aspect of teacher behavior that has not been examined in previous studies is the manner in which teachers interact with students. Whether the teacher interacts in a “public” or in a discrete manner, they maintain, affects student achievement. The results of this study indicate that “public” interactions had a small negative effect. Discrete interactions, on the other hand, had a significant positive effect on achievement. The authors warn that it should not be assumed, on the basis of this study, that the manner in which teachers interact with students, by itself, causes the student to perform well or poorly.
“Successful Student Practice During Seatwork: Efficient Management and Active Supervision Not Enough” Journal of Educational Research Volume 82, Number 2, pp. 70.
Published in ERN May/June 1989 Volume 2 Number 3