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Strategies and Techniques for Improving On-Task Behaviors in Secondary Classrooms

Jacob Johnston

330 Howard Johnston Road

Hazlehurst, GA 31539

An Annotated Bibliography Submitted to:

Dr. D. A. Battle of Georgia Southern University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
FRLT 7130 Y01

Monday, June 29, 2009

Statesboro, Georgia


Strategies and Techniques for Improving On-Task Behaviors in Secondary Classrooms

As a classroom teacher, one of the most difficult parts of my job,

especially with my lower-level classes, is maintaining my students’ attention

and keeping them on-task. After all, I can know the content inside and out

and present the content in an organized and clear manner, but if the

students are not paying attention and practicing, I have wasted my time.

After all, both attention and rehearsal are key components of learning.

Because of this, I have chosen to examine research in this area, especially

that focusing on secondary education, the level at which I teach.

I used several databases through Galileo to do my research. However, I was unable to

produce any relevant articles through any database other than Academic Search Complete. I did

use EBSCOhost through Galileo to find peer-reviewed journal articles, but even it returned only

Academic Search Complete articles.

Ainley, M. (2006, December). Connecting with learning: Motivation, affect and cognition in

interest processes. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 391-405. Retrieved July 13,

2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

This article looks at the literature about interest and how it affects behavior, especially on-task

behavior. Like the other articles dealing with student interest, the interest of a student in the

subject matter positively affected the student’s likelihood of being on task.

Cancio, E., West, R., & Young, K. (2004, Spring2004). Improving mathematics homework


completion and accuracy of students with EBD through self-management and parent

participation. Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Disorders,12(1), 9-22. Retrieved July

13, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

This research used math as its topic and focused on homework instead of in-class work.

However, the article says that homework can be a tool to improve academic ability in a class and

some of the other articles referenced in this bibliography have mentioned the positive effect of

self-efficacy on on-task behavior. This article describes how training parents on how to guide

their children with homework to increase the students’ self-management. The techniques

described improved homework completion for all students.

Colvin, G., Flannery, K., Sugai, G., & Monegan, J. (2009, Winter2009). Using observational

data to provide performance feedback to teachers: A high school case study. Preventing

School Failure, 53(2), 95-104. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from Academic Search Complete


This study focused on using feedback to high school teachers to improve their techniques to

increase on-task behavior in their classrooms. However, the article outlined what techniques the

teacher increased during the interventions that correlated with the increased on-task behavior.

The teacher behaviors that correlated to on-task student behaviors were assessment, questions,

and positive feedback.

Hawthorne, S. (2008, February). Students' beliefs about barriers to engagement with writing in

secondary school English: A focus group study. Australian Journal of Language &


Literacy, 31(1), 30-42. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from Academic Search Complete


This study looked at 28 tenth-graders in a New Zealand high school and found that the two main

factors of a student’s engagement in a task are a student’s interest in the topic and how relevant

the students believe the task to be. The study also found that reluctant writers tend to be more

influenced by the teacher, self-belief and their knowledge and skill factors than are students who

are more comfortable writing.

Morgan, P. (2006, May). Increasing task engagement using preference or choice-making: Some

behavioral and methodological factors affecting their efficacy as classroom interventions.

Remedial & Special Education, 27(3), 176-187. Retrieved June 29, 2009, from Academic

Search Complete database.

This article looks at other research relevant to classroom behavior, including on-task behavior,

for high school students. After looking at 15 other papers, the authors found that both choice-

making and preference increased productivity and decreased problem behaviors, but that choice-

making seemed to provide less consistent results depending on the type of problem behaviors.

Also, several studies that controlled for preference had trouble finding any benefit of choice-

making at all.

Navarro, J., Marchena, E., Alcalde, C., Ruiz, G., Llorens, I., & Aguilar, M. (2003, December).

Improving attention behaviour in primary and secondary school children with a computer

assisted instruction procedure. International Journal of Psychology, 38(6), 359-365.


Retrieved June 29, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

This study looked at how computer assisted instruction affected attention behavior, which is a

part of being on-task. The study compared students who used a computer program as part of their

instruction to students who either just played a video game or students who remained in a

traditional classroom setting. The study found that the experimental group, the group who

worked with the special instructional program, actually showed significant improvements in

attention behavior.

Seifert, E., & Beck Jr., J. (1984, September). Relationships between task time and learning gains

in secondary schools. Journal of Educational Research, 78(1), 5. Retrieved July 13,

2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

This article looks at the relationship between the time students spend on task and their

achievement. The study focused specifically on high school level instruction and found that the

lecture/discussion method lead to more time with students on task and that using seatwork as an

instructional tool had students spending the least time on task. This article has historical

significance in that it shows that on-task behavior does improve achievement as well as showing

some techniques to avoid.

Swinson, J., & Knight, R. (2007, September). Teacher verbal feedback directed towards

secondary pupils with challenging behaviour and its relationship to their behaviour.

Educational Psychology in Practice, 23(3), 241-255. Retrieved June 29, 2009, from

Academic Search Complete database.


This study looks at the effect of positive verbal feedback from teachers on on-task behavior in

problem students. Students that teachers identified as being more difficult to teach were observed

in classrooms. The study found that these problem students tended to receive more positive

feedback on their work than classmates, but also received more negative feedback on their

behavior than their classmates. The study found a positive correlation between the amount of

positive feedback a student received and their on-task behavior.

Umbreit, J., Lane, K., & Dejud, C. (2004, Winter2004). Improving classroom behavior by

modifying task difficulty: Effects of increasing the difficulty of too-easy tasks. Journal of

Positive Behavior Interventions, 6(1), 13-20. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from Academic

Search Complete database.

While this study does not deal with secondary students, it does offer evidence to support a

technique to increase on-task behaviors in reading. In this study, an often off-task 10-year-old

boy was able to be kept more on-task by providing him with more difficult lessons that kept his

interest. In the study, both the student and his teacher responded positively to the technique.

Implications for Applications to Educational Settings

Cumulatively these studies suggest that a combination of student interest, making sure

the material is neither too easy nor too difficult, and using better pedagogical strategies can help

teachers increase the amount of time that students spend on task. The historical context source

(Seifert, 1984) shows that the teacher can be a factor in improving a student’s motivation and


time spent on task and shows that seat work is an ineffective method of teaching because

students are less likely to spend time on task. By offering choice (Morgan, 2006) and designing

lessons to take into account the interest of the students (Hawthorne, 2008), I could potentially

improve the on-task behaviors of my students. However, it’s also important that the teacher look

at their own behaviors. Teachers need to make sure that their students have the prior knowledge

in order to feel comfortable enough with the material to stay on task. Similarly, when

assignments are too simple, the student’s attention may drift. It is also important for the teacher

to use effective techniques like questioning, discussion and positive feedback that keep the

students’ attention and help them know when they are on the right track (Colvin, Flannery,

Sugai, & Monegan, 2009). One suggestion, the computer assisted instruction (Navarro,

Marchena, Alcalde, Ruiz, Llorens, & Aguilar, 2003), may not be the most practical option. My

school has used this for its alternative school and still uses it for credit recovery after school

programs, the system is very expensive and the cost is based per student in the system.

On problem that I encountered, and one that I expected, is that much of the research in

education involves students at the middle school level or lower. I would like to see more research

in this area and others that focus specifically on secondary education. After all, high school

students are more like adults in their thinking and abilities than primary school students and the

structure of a high school is different than that students see in the lower grades. These factors

could easily affect what works and does not work for these students.