Keep students engaged in learning through pacing
Have you ever been in a meeting or class that seemed to drag on forever? Or, better still one that seemed to pass in a flash?
If you want to keep students engaged, it is crucial to consider the speed at which you move through a lesson and the rate of delivery for different parts of the lesson.
Instruction that moves along too slowly will likely result in bored students who quickly stop paying attention. When students become bored, they are often easily distracted and begin to misbehave.
Likewise, when instruction moves along too quickly, many students fail to understand what you are teaching, become discouraged and frustrated and again can begin to misbehave.
There is conflicting advice about the length of a student’s attention span. Some say students’ optimal attention span is equal to his or her age plus two minutes (e.g. a 13 year old will pay attention for about 15 minutes). Others say students will pay attention for half of their age or a maximum of three activities each hour. Some experts would assert that there is no such thing as an attention span at all and that as long as we feel something is interesting - it is easy to pay attention. We all know students can play video games for hours at a time!
Pacing is the skill of creating a perception that a class is moving at just the right speed for the students. Generally, this will mean that the lesson appears to unfold more quickly and helps students feel like they are moving along.
Factors that can make the pace feel too slow include:
- Too much teacher talk and/or long explanations/instructions
- Too much down time locating resources or transitioning between activities
- Too long on one activity
- Always using the same materials or presenting in the same manner
- Always getting your students to work in the same pairs/groups
- Sticking too rigidly to time limits
- Teaching to the weaker learners in the class
- Too much time spent on class feedback
- Getting stuck with one group of students when you are trying to monitor the whole class.
If you are unsure what your own pacing is like - try recording one of your lessons to monitor your instructional pace and speech patterns. Then ask yourself these questions:
Do you need to pick up the pace to maintain students’ attention?
Do you need to use more inflection to draw students into the activity?
Remember that old saying,
''A change is as good as a rest''
One way to create the illusion of speed/pace is to use a variety of activities to accomplish a single lesson objective and to move from one to another throughout the course of a lesson. Changing things creates interest and increases the pace. Stay with the topic, otherwise you risk confusion and distraction, but try changing:
- the type of work or activity
- the method of presentation
- the way students are grouped
For example if you are using direct instructions try inserting into your lecture some student-centered activities such as question-and-answer periods, discussions with a partner, small group or collaborative work, creation of brainstormed lists, estimating or calculating with a partner or in groups etc.
These activities will provide students with the opportunity to work directly with the material you have presented and give them the chance to apply what they have already learned thus scaffolding or building knowledge.
Put it in chunks...
By “chunking” you can break up the information you want to present. By offering “bite-sized” pieces of learning, students are better able to grasp the content or steps in skill development.
Some chunks of information can be taught, developed, or practiced in the student-centred portions of the lesson.
You can also present tiny “bursts” of information in “micro lectures”. These “tiny bursts” of information presented in a lecture format can then be followed by student-focused activities. In this way the pace of the class, feels brisk rather than slow as students get, perhaps, a one minute lecture, followed by an activity that deepens and applies new learning.
In the beginning ...there was a starter, main and plenary
Primacy-Recency Effect suggests that what we learn first in a lesson is what we remember best and what we learn last in a lesson is what we remember second best. The information in the middle, or “down-time/switch off time” is what we remember least and is where students need to be asked to engaged in practicing and applying learning through review, discussion, application of skills etc. if they are to remain on task and focused
The Primacy-Recency Effect is powerful when joined with the ideas of pacing and interactive lecture. Lessons with multiple parts allow students to experience multiple beginnings, middles, and endings — keeping learning levels high throughout an instructional period.
Bookending or brightening lines
Ensuring that activities begin and end crisply and clearly, rather than melding together, can have a positive effect on pacing.
Because beginnings and endings are perceived by students as reference points in a lesson making sure that they are clear to students helps them sense that the lesson is “moving along” and gives them a positive sense of pace. This technique has been referred to as “bookending” or “brightening lines” because learning segments are clearly marked by the teacher.
You can brighten lines by reminding students of what has been learned, or what is about to be learned, and by giving them very clear timeline, e.g. 'for 3 minutes' and 'during the next 10 minutes'.
This helps them focus on the fact that they are learning, and doing so at a good pace. The more specific you are, the clearer your “bookends” or “bright lines” will be. For example, compare;
“Now that everyone has finished their worksheet, please pass it in and begin reading from the textbook on page 67. I will give you 9 minutes.” to “Everyone has finished the worksheet. The main idea is addressed in question number 8 which refers to the author’s background and perspective. Jenny, would you sum that up for us? Okay, now that we understand the poet’s family life, let’s take 9 minutes to read two of his poems which begin on page 67. We will then connect his family life to the poetry after a 9-minute reading period.”
Use of time-keeping devices such as egg timers or kitchen timers as signals to stay within the time parameters allotted for each activity can also help with pacing. If you prefer a more subtle approach, recruit students to monitor the time and signal you at designated points within the instructional activity - time keeper role.
Sometimes it is difficult to maintain pacing when moving from one activity to another often during the course of a lesson. One relatively simple way to maintain an effective pace is by preventing interruptions in the lesson due to misplaced materials or instructional resources.
Other organsational techniques include:
- Having lessons with more varied activities requires advance planning/preparation by the teacher of the classroom setup and materials.
- Making lesson material readily accessible to you and to students decreases interruptions during work time, and improves the pace.
- Moving from activity to activity without preparation feels chaotic to students and will be frustrating for you.
Behaviour management and pace
When activities change in a lesson some students will feel stress. Transitions can be very difficult in classrooms where teachers struggle with management. The lesson doesn’t flow smoothly from one activity to the next and feels choppy when the teacher must take time to organize and control students before starting again.
Some studies suggest a brisk pace of instruction may actually help with classroom management by decreasing disruptive classroom behaviour. Interested students are engaged in work rather then disruptive behaviour
You may need to take time to cultivate a classroom culture with a good pace through effective planning and by helping students learn and practice transition procedures.