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June 1, 2020

Pacing Lessons for Optimal Learning

Planning for good pacing—the timing of presenting elements and keeping kids engaged—is crucial to a lesson's success. Here's how to get it right.

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Instructional Strategies
Classroom Management
Engagement
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Credit: June 2020

You are committed to students and their learning. Each week, you invest many hours in instructional planning. Your commitment is evident in your bell-to-bell instruction. Any time an observer enters your classroom, they will see you teaching: If you aren't leading whole-group instruction, you can be found at the kidney table working with small groups or conferencing with individual students. You have good classroom-management skills. You also provide opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction, and your instruction is clearly aligned with the standards, all in an effort to provide your students with high-quality, effective instruction.

Imagine you're the teacher described here. You feel good about your practice—yet you sense that something about how effectively your lessons move along and keep students engaged isn't as strong as it could be. During post-observation debriefings, while your principal or other observers consistently talk about your strengths, they also mention growth opportunities—all of which center on what we might call pacing. After some reflection, you realize that pacing, the timing and presentation of elements of a lesson, is an instructional practice you need to refine. So what now?

What Do We Mean by Pacing— and "Learning Time"?

What exactly is pacing? Feeney, Hibbard, and Ylvisaker (2006) define pacing as "the rate at which instructional activities occur or at which specific ‘learning trials' are presented to the student." Perception is part of pacing: The teacher-development group Impact Teachers (2016) describes pacing as "the skill of creating a perception that a class is moving at just the right speed for the students."

There's a correlation between effective pacing and student engagement, so it's crucial to consider the speed at which you move through a lesson and the rate of delivery for different parts of the lesson. When pacing is too slow, students often become bored and disengaged. When it's too fast, some may not grasp what's being taught and get lost—or discouraged.

As an instructional coach and educational consultant, I'm responsible for facilitating critical reflection and collaborating with teachers in problem solving to improve or enhance their instruction. I spend many hours observing classroom instruction, which allows me to see different teachers, instructional styles, and implementation of practice. I've noticed that teachers who struggle with getting the right pacing in their lessons often struggle because of barriers they create themselves. By this I mean teacher behaviors that adversely affect pacing. Fortunately, any teacher can improve her or his pacing by engaging in certain processes when planning for and delivering instruction.

How we use time is an important factor in the success of any lesson. Before diving into how pacing impacts student learning and ways to improve pacing, we need a common understanding of time within the context of teaching and learning. After conducting classroom observations over a six-year period, researchers Carolyn Denham and Anne Lieberman (1980) developed the term academic learning time, which is composed of several variables:

  • Allocated time: The amount of time teachers plan to devote to instructional activities in a lesson.

  • Instructional time: The amount of allocated time dedicated to a specific instructional activity that a teacher (or students) actually spend on that activity.

  • Engaged time: The amount of time during which students are authentically engaged in the instructional activit(ies). 1

To make effective learning happen, we want to maximize "engaged time"—in which students aren't just attending to direct instruction or doing the activities planned, but are substantively engaged as they do so. In other words, students put forth cognitive effort, actively participate, and commit to the task.

Using Planning to Improve Pacing

Determine How Much Time You'll Really Have

To increase engaged learning time, we must first recognize that lesson planning is just as important as teaching, and it should include planning to set the right pace. It's the phase of instruction in which teachers have the most opportunity to be intentional in selecting content and pedagogical practices. The TESOL International Association (n.d.) explains that when a teacher "… is clear on what needs to be done, how, and when … [pacing] will tend to flow more smoothly because all the information has been gathered and the details have been decided upon beforehand." Well-planned lessons lead to an increase in Denham and Lieberman's "instructional time" (as well as "engaged time").

Since most U.S. schools are now doing remote learning to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, let me note that it's equally essential to think about planning for effective pacing in lessons taught online. When teaching virtually, we should think about pacing in lessons a bit differently, but good pacing is still important. (See "Good Pacing When Teaching in Virtual Settings".)

When planning for a lesson you want to teach, it's imperative to consider the amount of time you will actually have for delivering instruction and facilitating student activities. Actually is the operative word here because both expected and unforeseen variables like announcements, attendance, restroom breaks, fire drills, and student misconduct all impact instructional time. It's almost impossible to predict when and what types of behaviors will occur within your lesson—and fire drills can happen out of the blue. But, although you have no control over unexpected events, you can at least estimate how much instructional time you'll likely have by approximating the time needed for extraneous activities like attendance that are within your control.

Getting a handle on this information will be critical in determining how much information and how many activities you'll be able to fit into a single lesson. It will help you decide how much time each element should ideally take. Failing to allocate specific amounts of time to each part of a lesson—whether you write these allocations down or just mentally note them—often causes lesson components to lag.

Determine the Learning Target

To ensure you allocate appropriate amounts of time to present essential content, you must first identify the lesson's learning target. You have to determine, specifically, what you want students to know and be able to do by the lesson's end. This will inform how you apportion your lesson time. If a lesson's content, for example, is complex and conceptual and your learning target involves thorough understanding of a key concept, you may need to devote more time to concept development and direct instruction than to a student work activity.

When developing learning targets, you must be realistic about how much content you'll be able to teach because (for most secondary teachers at least) the amount of minutes you have with each group of students has been allotted by your state, district, or school—and can't be expanded. Therefore, you need to set reasonable expectations for how much students will be able to learn within the time allotted for the lesson. This can be achieved by breaking the standard you're teaching into bite-sized, manageable learning objectives and designing a lesson (or several) for each objective.

Take, for example, a language arts standard determine the main idea. The following learning targets would be considered bite-sized for this standard:

Learning Target 1: Determine the topic of a text.

Learning Target 2: Identify key details and explain how details develop the topic.

Learning Target 3: Determine the main idea of a text.

The opposite of planning bite-sized objectives is planning too many learning targets—or one massive learning target—for a lesson. Teachers who pick too large a target and plan components for a single lesson that lead to mastering that target—and who are adamant about sticking to what they planned—will likely end up teaching the content, not the students. Because such a teacher is pressed to get through the lesson, he won't have time to pause and check for understanding. This approach to pacing adversely impacts student learning. When instruction moves along too quickly, many students won't understand what you're teaching and will become discouraged (Impact Teachers, 2016).

Script Your Questions

Every teacher behavior impacts a lesson's pacing. While asking questions is a sound practice, neglecting to carefully plan questions beforehand can be a detriment to pacing; questions that are vague or misfire disrupt the flow of a lesson and take away time from essential content. I've seen many lesson objectives not attained and the instruction come to an impasse, so to speak, when extended time was spent on one or more questions because the teacher was refining her questions during instruction. Generally, the teacher had to refine questions midstream because students' responses indicated that the questions she was posing were verbose, ambiguous, or nebulous. Scripting your questions carefully during planning increases your chances of keeping pacing on track.

In addition, make sure you use your questions judiciously. I've seen the pacing of lessons derailed by a teacher continuing to call on different students in search of a correct response to a question, even when more than enough student answers have clearly demonstrated that a teaching point was needed for these students to grasp the concept or content being asked about.

Plan Your Teaching Point—and Try a Few Tricks

Just as you plan questions, it's important to plan your teaching points. A teaching point is a specific piece of information, skill, or understanding you want learners to take away from the lesson. If you were teaching a math lesson, a teaching point could be teaching students how to regroup; in a science lesson, it might be how to differentiate between chemical and physical changes. Unlike a learning target, which states what students should know and be able to do, a teaching point is any segment or piece of information within the lesson that supports students in mastering that objective.

Whether made in a think aloud, teacher modeling, mini-lesson, guided discourse, or point of clarification, in my experience, the teaching point is often where the downward slope in instructional delivery effectiveness begins. The trouble often stems from a lack of preparation, evidenced by a teacher giving protracted explanations and superfluous information—both of which cause pacing to lag. To increase the likelihood of strong lesson pacing, you must know the lesson's content, know what you're going to say and how you're going to say it, and know specifically what you are going to do in the lesson and how you're going to execute those actions. In return for this intentionality, instruction will flow more smoothly.

Since you need to keep the lesson—especially in key teaching points—feeling briskly paced but not go so fast that some students get lost, consider ways to use a bit of smoke and mirrors, creating the perception of speed. This can be done by varying the modes of presentation (lecture, video, direct instruction, etc.) and including more than one activity (pair-share, think-write-speak, discussion period, and so on) to attain the lesson's objective. Changing things up creates interest and increases the pace.

Thoughtfully Plan Activities

Activities directly impact student learning, so you need to choose or develop engaging activities, plan them carefully, and allocate time for activities appropriately. With your learning target in mind, brainstorm activities that will require students to interact with the content, interact with their peers, and get out of their seats. It's also necessary to consider your students' readiness. Planning for readiness is crucial because readiness impacts both motivation and engagement. If the content is too difficult, students might mentally check out; if it's too easy, they'll become bored.

Besides planning for students' readiness levels, you must plan for relevance—and for the same reason: engagement. Roberson (2013) defines relevance as "the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing," and claims it's one of the most important aspects of teaching and learning. He notes that in addition to a connection to students' lives, the perception of relevance is enhanced by good classroom relationships. Students engage more with teachers they have a relationship with and like.

To increase the chances students will perceive the learning as worthwhile, begin the lesson with a captivating hook or lesson opener (Simmons, 2015). Getting students' attention at the onset of a lesson is critical. In addition, as you introduce lesson content and activities, make clear to students the "why" of the lesson and its long-term value. Connect the lesson to their lives and backgrounds.

Before You Allocate Time, "Internalize"

After determining the lesson's learning target, key questions, teaching points, and activities, it is time to internalize the lesson. Lesson internalization entails thinking through the lesson and practicing critical aspects, such as think alouds, explanations, and transitions. It involves rehearsing. Alber (2012) explains that it takes practice to make the pacing in a lesson seamless. Rehearsing is paramount because it allows the teacher to refine aspects of the lesson before presenting it.

There are several ways you can practice your instructional delivery to positively impact pacing. If you're comfortable presenting in front of colleagues, you can ask them to participate as students. If being that vulnerable makes you uneasy, ask friends or family members to role-play. These two methods are effective because you have the opportunity to receive honest, critical feedback. If you're like most teachers, when it comes to self-evaluation, you're probably overly critical, and it may feel too hard to rehearse in front of others. In this case, you might want to record yourself to watch and learn from later.

Rehearsing the lesson promotes appropriate time allocation. Only after completing this phase should you begin allocating time to elements of the lesson. If you allocate without engaging in the internalization process, you ‘re likely to devote insufficient time to certain parts and too much time to other lesson components.

Getting to Engaged

Keeping the lesson flowing at a good pace helps keep students engaged—and remember, what we're after is maximizing not just time on task, but "engaged time." Here are several other things to consider about pacing for engagement:

Transitions and Classroom Management

Like the previously mentioned pedagogical practices, classroom management impacts pacing. Transitions, for example—if not planned well—can be the point where pacing goes off track. As you internalize your lesson, create explicit instructions you'll give students as they move to the next activity. Make a note of what materials you'll need to have readily available to provide learners as they make this transition.

Teachers will also need to respond to unexpected student behaviors—and misbehaviors—as the lesson unfolds. While we can't pre-plan the best response to any behavior that may arise, we can plan and practice strategies to address minor behavior issues (and even more serious ones) without breaking the flow of the lesson. My article in the September 2019 EL describes such strategies. It's important to not completely stop instruction to address inconsequential behaviors. Stopping the lesson negatively impacts pacing and interferes with creating instructional time and engaged time.

Finally, it's crucial to read your audience. Even if you've planned your lesson well, as it unfolds, attend to the signals students give you as to whether your pacing is too fast or too slow. Pay close attention to students' behavior. I've seen many lessons executed poorly because teachers failed to adjust their pacing to meet the needs of their audience.

Signals that indicate pacing is too slow include:

  • Students put their heads down or act restless.

  • Students seem preoccupied and inattentive.

  • Inappropriate behaviors increase throughout the lesson.

Signals that indicate pacing is too fast include:

  • Students ask many questions for clarification.

  • Students look confused.

  • Students are struggling to keep up and understand the material.

Signals that indicate your pacing is just right include:

  • Students are engaged (asking questions that spark discussion, collaborating with peers, completing tasks, and keeping up with the pace of new material presented).

  • Students seem to be grasping the content, evidenced by correct responses and appropriate, relevant questions.

Better Pacing, Better Teaching

Whether you're teaching face-to-face or virtually, choosing lesson content well and implementing sound instructional strategies are just two components of a powerful lesson. If students never get to the essential content or become disengaged as you present it because of poor pacing, the lesson will be somewhat futile. Teachers must take actions like those described here to enhance the pacing of their lessons. Getting this aspect right will help increase the most important time elements in the classroom: instructional time and engaged time.

Good Pacing When Teaching in Virtual Settings

As an instructional coach, I often facilitate teacher professional learning communities on the topic of strengthening instructional pacing. Now, as I facilitate such groups virtually, I find myself discussing with teachers how to get pacing right when teaching in the virtual space, and the pacing of asynchronous and synchronous instruction.

Teaching in the virtual space is very different from teaching in the physical classroom, and pacing in a remotely delivered lesson space presents a unique challenge: teachers and students aren't in the same physical setting. Not being in this same space leaves the teacher with little to no control over household distractions and students becoming preoccupied, both of which can adversely impact pacing. To mitigate these barriers to good pacing, when teaching remotely:

  • Keep lessons short (15 minutes or less) and upbeat. Only include essential content.

  • Include appropriate audio and visuals in pre-recorded lessons (asynchronous learning) and during live sessions (synchronous learning).

  • During synchronous learning, cold call on students, as needed, to prevent students' lack of participation from disrupting the lesson's flow.

Essential Steps for Planning with Great Pacing in Mind

Choose the Goal and Components for Your Lesson:

  • Determine how much time you'll have.

  • Set your learning target.

  • Script the questions you'll pose.

  • Plan actions and words for your teaching point.

  • Plan lesson activities (consider readiness levels and relevance).

Once You've Planned Individual Components, "Internalize":

  • Think through and rehearse key parts of the lesson.

  • Allocate how much time to give each element.

  • Think through transitions—and be ready to read signals.

References

Alber, R. (2012, December 17). Instructional pacing: How do your lessons flow? [Blog post]. Edutopia.

Denham, C., & Lieberman, A. (1980). Time to learn: A review of the beginning teachers evaluation study. Sacramento, CA: California State Commission for Teacher Preparation and Licensing.

Feeney, T., Hibbard, M., & Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is instructional pacing? Project Learning.

Impact Teachers. (2016). Teacher tips: Pace.

Roberson, R. (2013). Psychology teachers network: Helping students find relevance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Simmons, C. (2015, September 24). Capturing students' attention with compelling hooks. ASCD Express, 11(2).

Teaching Excellence in Adult Learning. (2010). TEAL Center Fact Sheet #8: Effective lesson planning. Washington, D.C.: American Institutes of Research.

TESOL International Association (n.d.). The importance of lesson planning.

End Notes

1 An instructional activity is any specific learning experience or task a teacher puts in place to support student learning (such as interactive read alouds, paired discussions, or completing a graphic organizer).

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