New Teachers

Instructional Pacing: How Do Your Lessons Flow?

December 17, 2012
Photo credit: matea2506 via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pacing a lesson so its nearly seamless takes expertise and practice -- and can be one of the greatest challenges for new teachers. For those more seasoned out there, here's a scenario many of us can relate to from the early days: way too much time for one learning activity, while not enough for another and clunky transitions in between.

Also on the teacher plate when it comes to instructional decisions that influence pacing? How best to chunk and scaffold content so it's grade-level appropriate and then deciding on the best instructional mode.

So let's take a look at the essentials when it comes to pacing the lesson and the learning:

1. Create a Sense of Urgency. The true art of pacing lies in creating a sense of urgency and also not leaving your students in the dust. Think diligent pace but not frenetic. This pacing feels just right to most learners in the room.

Using a timer on your desk (or try this one) can help create that "we are on the clock" feeling -- while moving steadily ahead proving ample wait/think time along the way. If a teacher question is asked of the whole group, don't expect an answer the first second or two, or three. Count to five when asking those particularly challenging questions. Sometimes we need to slow down in order to move the learning in the room forward.

2. Make Goals Clear. One way to avoid a clunky lesson pace is to make sure the learners know exactly what they are learning and doing for the day. "Our mission today is to discover... . We will be doing this by... ." Keep students focused as you transition from one learning activity to another, announcing how much closer they are to accomplishing the day's goal.

3. Have Smooth Transitions. Speaking of transitions, good ones demonstrate purposeful pacing and knowing next moves. Be thinking two steps ahead of the next activity, and begin setting up for the next activity without finishing the last. While students are completing one piece of the learning, pass out any materials, set up the projector, or have instructional notes in place so that there's little to no dead time between one learning activity to the next.

4. Be Sure Materials Are Ready. Doing this will let you keep the flow going. Have handouts, markers, scissors, and construction paper all in place. Many teachers create small supply containers of materials that include glue stick, scissors, highlighters, sticky notes, etc. and place it in the center of each collection of desks or team table. Each group can elect a Supplies Captain who keeps inventory and rounds up contents at the end of class time.

Photocopying can be the bane of the teacher's day. Do you really need to have the quiz or the writing prompt on individual copy paper? Can it be displayed on the projector screen instead? Can there be just one copy on the group table for all to look at? (Less passing out and collecting saves time and keeps the focus on the task at hand.)

5. Present Instructions Visually. This helps keep that pace uninterrupted. For each set of instructions, write them ahead of time on the board or have a slide in your PowerPoint or Prezi. If you are relying on giving oral directions only, think of those students that have poor listening skills: "What are we doing again?" What do we do after this?" The energy and time you take to make the instructions visible will pay off.

6. Check for Understanding. Taking time to see where your students are during the lesson and adjusting accordingly means formative assessments play a key role in pacing.

Pair and share creates energy in the room following direct instruction. Keep it in short spurts, breaking up every five to seven minutes of new information with "turn and talk with your elbow partner." Walk around the room and listen in to gauge understanding. These pauses for students to talk with each other can be as brief as 45 seconds. Also, use non-verbal quickies like thumbs up/thumbs down to see where students are and assess if more time or re-teaching is needed.

7. Choose Most Effective Type of Teaching. How will I get this new information to my students? Teachers must ask themselves this question continually when lesson planning. Sometimes new information is so new that students need to first see a visual representation and then require some information directly from their teacher to think about. Other times, it's best to set up a situation connecting to student schema and then group work to follow. Deciding the instructional mode (direct, student-centered, or facilitation) can be as important as choosing the content.

When that pacing seems off, is it time to switch the mode of delivery? Do they need a mini-lecture to clarify some misconceptions? Might a re-energizing activity be necessary, like a choral reading or class A-Z line up? Use a variety of activities with different formats to keep that flow and rhythm in the room.

How do you set up lessons so they flow? What pacing tips might you like to offer up that work well with your students?

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