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Aurora Institute

Lessons from Tracking Student Flex Time in a Competency-Based High School

CompetencyWorks Blog

The previous blog post described the “flex-mod” schedule that Legacy High School is using to facilitate competency-based education. It divides the school day into 22 periods, or “mods,” that enable a variety of flexible scheduling innovations. Once the schedule was well-established, Legacy High School began working with REL Central to investigate how it was being used and how to improve it.

REL Central, a federally-funded research center, worked with Legacy High School staff to develop an online time log for students to record how they spend their flex time. During five weeks spread across the 2018-19 school year, students were asked to complete the time log during selected courses that met near the end of the school day. They could complete the log on up to three days during each of those five weeks, or up to 15 times total.

Students reported how many minutes of flex time they had that day, how much of it they used for academic versus nonacademic pursuits in several categories, and how much flex time they spent on-campus versus off-campus. They were also asked how much of their flex-time activities were self-determined rather than assigned by a teacher.

In total, 495 students completed at least one time log. They reported having an average of 80 minutes per day of flex time, varying from 62 minutes for 9th graders to 109 minutes for 12th graders. Teachers only determined how 3% of flex time would be used (see figure below), so students were the primary decision-makers.

Pie chart of how students used their flex time
How Students Used Their Flex Time

A key finding is that students reported spending 19% of their flex time on academic activities compared to 77% on nonacademic activities. That translates to about 15 academic minutes versus 62 nonacademic minutes. With that fact in hand, we might imagine opponents of flex time declaring, “I rest my case!” And while their point may resonate at first glance, the findings require some unpacking and discussion.

First, the “nonacademic activities” category includes lunch time, but the number of minutes of lunch aren’t specified. If lunch was 25 minutes and excluded from the flex time calculations, the revised estimate would be that students were spending a third of their flex time on academic activities. That’s still not as much as many educators or parents might have hoped, but it’s substantially more than the initial estimate.

The important question here is whether flex time is helping students build essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions more than a traditional schedule would. Unfortunately, although this study provides much valuable information, it wasn’t designed to answer that complex question. Answering it would require us to investigate questions such as: Would using the 80 minutes of flex time in more traditional ways lead to students spending more time on academic activities? Would those increased academic activities lead to a higher level of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we value in our graduates?

Unsurprisingly, the study findings have prompted Legacy High School to consider how they could support students to spend more of their flex time on academic activities. That’s a much better outcome than assuming that all of the nonacademic time is being squandered and deciding to abandon the innovation. After all, the intended benefits of flex time—such as increasing student engagement by enabling greater agency in their learning and helping them build time management and self-direction skills—make sense intuitively and are supported by some learning sciences theory and research.

It would also be valuable to talk with students to understand how they are spending their nonacademic time and why. The two students, Ben Patton and Isabella Ternes, who participated in the recent Aurora Institute webinar about flex time at Legacy High School, shared how they had used flex time on their most recent school day. Patton said that it was a course-heavy day, he only had 20 minutes of flex time, and he didn’t use it for academics. He said it’s good to have a snack, spend a little while on his phone, and recharge his (figurative) batteries. Other weeks he has used those 20 minutes to go for a run or use the weight room, because it’s a long day. His candor gives us useful perspective—presumably most successful adults take some breaks too.

Much of Ternes’ flex time sounded like it would have fallen into the academic category. She knew that she was going to miss most of her classes the following day, due to a long drive to an interscholastic volleyball game, so she used her flex time to take a test in advance and gather assignments from her teachers to work on during the bus ride.

Principal Tom Schmidt commented that Ternes’ actions were exactly the type of self-advocacy, self-direction, and time management skills that flex time is intended to support. He said that many students are using it “the right way,” and the school is working on strategies to help all students do that. But he also spoke approvingly of a student who had a golf tryout coming up and used his flex time on a warm spring day to hit some balls at a nearby driving range, then returned to school for chemistry class. His bottom line is that the school wants to ensure that students are spending enough time on academics, but also that they are learning how to use their time effectively and how it feels to make good and bad decisions about time use.

One other big finding of the study is that students spend very little time in the learning centers where students can go during flex time to get academic support. The study findings are prompting the school to investigate why students aren’t using the learning centers, and there are many worthwhile questions to ask: What would make the learning centers more engaging and useful to students? Is there a stigma associated with using them? Are they already being effective by serving a small number of students intensively? Would teachers’ expertise be better allocated to different strategies?

The study also used student demographic and achievement data to look at how students from different subgroups use their flex time. If you dig deeper into the study products (cited below), it’s important to consider the difference between what’s statistically significant and what’s educationally meaningful. For example, students who were struggling in math and reading were given less say in how to use their flex time (compared to students who were excelling), but the difference was only about six minutes per day. This difference was statistically significant, but whether it’s educationally meaningful is up for discussion. A few findings in the study warrant similar analysis.

The Legacy High School and REL Central study provides valuable information about innovations designed to support competency-based education. While many questions clearly need further investigation, this type of implementation research is essential for advancing the field. More information about the study can be found in the resources below.

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Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.

Follow @Eliot_Levine