In-class desk work

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In-class desk work refers to a time in class where learners spend time doing work on their own, generally directed by the explainer but with quiet time for the learner to do the work.

An example would be after the explainer explains a concept to the learners, the explainer gives the learners some exercise to try out, and a few minutes to work on it. During that period of a few minutes, the explainer is not broadcasting visual and auditory signals to the class (the explainer may be going around individually reviewing learners' desk work).


  • In-class desk work puts strong pressure on all learners to work substantively on the material in real time. This contrasts with other forms of interactive teaching, such as voluntary participation, cold calling, and polling, where students do have to engage with the material but can do so at a relatively superficial level.
  • In-class desk work allows explainers to get a clearer sense of the conceptual models developed by a large number of students. This is particularly advantageous compared with polling, because the instructor can see the first attempts of a number of students without the students being influenced by the class consensus. Polling can achieve a similar effect as in-class desk work, but required more technological infrastructure, and does not allow for the more long-form diagnosis that in-class desk work facilitates.
  • In-class desk work allows instructors to break the plane in the classroom and interact better with the students.


  • In-class desk work takes a lot of time, and may not offer much value relative to having students do homework to practice material.
  • In-class desk work can sometimes generate hostility from students who feel more constrained to work on what the instructor tells them, and don't like that.

Parameters relevant to in-class desk work

Relation between in-class desk work and instruction

There are different types of patterns of relation.

In some cases, in-class desk work is alternated with instruction. An instructor may talk for 15 minutes, then give students 2 minutes for in-class desk work on specific questions posed by the instructor. In other cases, some lectures are focused solely on instruction, and other lectures (or review sessions) are focused solely on in-class desk work. The choice of option depends on:

  • The switching cost between the instructional and in-class desk work format. High switching costs suggest that it is better to separate instruction and in-class desk work.
  • The positive feedback between instructional learning and learning through in-class desk work. In some cases, doing in-class desk work can prepare students better to understand instruction immediately thereafter, and listening to instruction can help with in-class desk work. In these cases, alternation within a single session is helpful.


The following are possible with regards to collaboration:

  • Permitted but not regulated: Students are allowed to collaborate with each other, but no explicit regulations (other than perhaps a limit on the noise level) are imposed.
  • Explicit group assignments: Students are assigned to groups and can collaborate within their group. The groups are mutually disjoint. The groups may be student-determined or instructor-determined. They may be assigned based on simple geography of student seating, which may be student-chosen or instructor-enforced.
  • Forbidden: All students are supposed to work things out by themselves.

A reasonable compromise between forbidding and permitting collaboration is to require a small amount of initial time spent attempting the problem by oneself, before one is permitted to discuss with others.

Instructor interaction with students

In-class desk work provides instructors with the opportunity to break the plane: instructors can move around the classroom, checking students' desk work, commenting on it, and identifying areas of student strength and weakness.