Learning by Watching Part Three: Real Learning Index
Written by Jim Knight.

Using a Flip camera can help us uncover data we might not otherwise see in our classrooms. In fact, data can focus our attention so intensely that we see patterns that might not otherwise be possible and, therefore, help us in effective decision-making.  However, when we focus our attention in one area, we may miss what is happening in others. For this reason, while we can use data to get a snapshot of what it going on in our classroom, it is important that we do so knowing data’s limitations.

Such is the case for the Real Learning Index, one way of gauging the learning that is taking place in your classroom. The Real Learning Index (RLI) combines two forms of data: (a) learning time and (b) student engagement. By combining these two data sets, we can get insight into what is happening in the classroom. However, the RLI is a gross measure, and does not account for either the quality of what is being learned or the depth of engagement.  The RLI is a very powerful tool for identifying simple ways to increase student learning, but it is only one tool and, it does not measure the relevance or impact of the learning occurring. As a result, it is important to use it along with other ways of reviewing what is happening in our class.

To gather the Real Learning Index, you will need to set up your Flip camera to record your students’ reactions as you teach. You should set up the camera to see all of the students if possible.  After you have recorded the class, you can review the recording to develop the RLI.

The first data set in the RLI refers to the percentage of time that is dedicated to actual learning during a class period. To calculate learning time, record the class you’d like to study, and then review the class with your trusty cell phone timer or other timer in hand.  Then, time every second when there is downtime (any time students are not learning), such as taking roll, transitions, off-task conversations, student preparation to leave class, and record how long it takes.

Once you have reviewed the entire class and you know how much downtime there is, calculate the percentage of learning time by (a) subtracting the downtime from the total class time, which gives you the total learning time, and (b) divide the total learning time by the total time to give you a percentage. For example, if 15 minutes of a 50-minute class were downtime and 35 minutes were spent on learning time, then the percentage of learning time would be 70%.

The second data set to be gathered for the Real Learning Index is student engagement, or time on task; that is, how many students look like they are engaged.  To gather these data, set your cell phone on vibrate and set your timer to go off every 10 minutes during your class. Then when feel your phone vibrate, make a quick glance around the room to note how many students are not engaged and record that number.  Continue throughout the class period.

At the end of the class, average all of the numbers signifying students off task and subtract the average number from the total number of students in class.  Divide the average number of engaged students by the total number of students in the class. That will give you a percentage of time on task.  If, on average, 21 out of 30 students are on task, the average time on task is 70%.

The RLI is the combination of both of these numbers. In the ideal situation, 100% of students are engaged and 100% of the class time is learning time.  If that were the case, the RLI would be 1.00.

To calculate the Real Learning Index for your class, write both percentages as fractions. Thus, 70% learning time becomes .70 and 70% time on task becomes .70.  Then multiply the two numbers: .70 x .70 = .49.  In other words, if 70% of students are engaged and 70% of the time is learning time, 49% of the potential for learning is being realized, or less than half of the total potential real learning time.

Teachers who want to increase their RLI can work on one of two things: student engagement or learning time. If you increase either of these or both, you increase the authentic learning that is taking place in your classroom. What the RLI does, in my experience, is make you more aware of student engagement and instructional time.  The Real Learning Index is only one way of seeing the class, but like other forms of data gathering, it sometimes helps us see patterns that otherwise would remain invisible.


  1. julie

    Great idea for a flipcam! Would it be possible for me to share this idea when I present a workshop on novel uses for the flipcam in the classroom? Can I share parts of your post? Learning time and engagement are so crucial to instruction…I feel that this would be an ideal topic to begin with before I share my other flipcam ideas with my audience!

    • Jim Knight

      Hi Julie, please share any and all posts anytime. Spread the word!!

  2. Marti

    Jim, I am so pleased to see that you are getting this accurate and practical information “out there” where teachers, coaches, and even administrators can ponder it and eventually act on it. Keep spreading that good virus.

  3. Beverly Downey

    Great idea, Jim. I use a flip camera for many things. This is not one idea I have used. Two years ago when our KUCRL conference was held in July, I was inspired by the use of a flip, so I bought one the next week. I have been usiing it ever siince!

  4. Usharani

    Thanks for RLI,

    Interesting and very helpful tool, to find out weather the students were focused on task. Both the datas of RLI will improve their learning skills. However, this is to find not only students learning and engagements, but also the teachers engagements on two source of skills. How the teachers is aware of collecting data after every 10 minutes without changing the track in her teaching.

  5. Jennifer Sikes

    I’m a coach and do not get to teach lessons every day. But, today I did. I’ve been using various techniques to capture engagement data, but sometimes find it difficult to ascertain if a student is engaged or not just by looking at them. So, today I used the student survey from an earlier post on this site. I set a ten-minute timer and had students note their engagement level each time it beeped. I also noted what part of the lesson we were in at each interval. I made a chart of the results and I’m still analyzing them. I can’t attach it here, sorry. It was an interesting activity that I’d like to have teachers use.

    • Jim Knight

      Hi Jennifer, if you email me the chart, I think I can add it here, and I’d love to. By the way, when I tried this most recently what struck me was how aware I was of student engagement.

  6. jalex

    Real Learning Index….I like the concept. Following fall IC Conference, I used the flip camera, asked the teacher to record me in 2-3 different student interactions….next step, we will watch together – – and then, reverse roles. My Real Learning – – !



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