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Instructional Pacing: How Do Your Lessons Flow?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
Related Tags: New Teachers, All Grades
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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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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Call me cruel. Call me old school. But here it is the 36th day of school and I've finally gotten around to showing a dang movie.

You can imagine how they hooted and hollered when they walked into The Cozy Room of Learning and saw a big TV on top of the beat-up red metal cart I borrowed from Old Burrell since he shows a movie about every day.

When they came in the TV was already turned on and the screen is that bright blue and on top of the TV is the box for the video I propped up there and on the front of a box is a picture of an etching of a serious dude in a white wig and above that it says "The Founding of Georgia. 35.5 minutes." I believe the dude with the wig is James Oglethorpe. I still can't fathom why they wanted to look like female impersonators back then, but looking back on our ancestors and making fun of them is real easy. I don't make fun of our ancestors in front of the kids, though. They do that on their own just fine.

Anyhow, they hooted and hollered until I told them that on the chapter 7 quiz this week there'll be questions about the movie ... about ten or fifteen of them.


Dang right. So pay close attention ... and enjoy! Take notes if you like. I pressed the start button.

Here are five revelations learned after only five minutes into the movie about showing the first movie of the school year in Georgia history class:

1. During the showing of a movie, never, ever blurt out that that part's important to remember. They don't like it when you do that

2. During a showing of a movie, never, ever, ask them if they understand that last part

3. During the showing of a movie, never, ever ask them if they remember when we talked about that exact same stuff a few days ago

4. They like the lights turned off and the window blinds closed

5. After the movie, if you ask them questions about the movie and most of them don't have a clue what you're talking about and you offer to show the movie to them again they don't want to see the movie again

So ... revelations. One of my little historians said Savannah's a real nice place now. Forrest Gump lives there.

R.G.'s picture
Resource Specialist, Grades K - 5

Been there, as well! Thanks for the chuckle!

A. Perry's picture
A. Perry
Elementary School Teacher pursuing an Ed.D. in Higher Education

I like the suggestions that you made for teaching how to pace a lesson: sense of urgency, clear goals, smooth transitions, materials ready, visual instructions, check for understanding, and choose effective teaching methods. These strategies can be used at any level and taught through effective mentoring to new teachers. Do you have suggestions of how to implement these strategies into a mentoring program?

Jessica Goodrich's picture
Jessica Goodrich
high school history teacher from Fort Worth, TX

Thank you for all the ideas for pacing. This is something I can't get right yet, always having to redirect students to refocus and get on task. There are a few things I am going to look into further, such as Prezi, and class A-Z line up. I haven't heard of either of those. I do have one question though. For the times that we slow our pace to allow further "mini-lectures" or other activities for the students who just aren't getting it, what do we do then, after falling behind? I know the answer is not to rush through just for the sake of following the schedule, but this is where I scratch my head and wonder...

Jessica Goodrich's picture
Jessica Goodrich
high school history teacher from Fort Worth, TX

Also, I frequently use a timer, but more for mini goals ("in the next 5 minutes I want you to have this many questions completed correctly") rather than for the whole class. What do I do for the students who either finish way ahead of time, or don't have enough time?

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Jessica,
I think the key thing to remember here is that your job is to teach kids, not content. It's better to do a great job of teaching the kids about the content in engaging ways that make it accessible to them than to try and rush your way through the content. The end result of the former is that while you may not have covered every single thing in your content area over the course of the year, the students will have a firm understanding of what you did. The end result of the latter is that you've covered everything, and the kids will forget it all. Which would you rather have?

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Jessica!

When I present about differentiated instruction, this analogy seems to help:
Think of teaching like you are driving a car down the highway. As a teacher, you often drive a midrange car, like a Prius- fuel efficient, long lasting. The kids are driving just about every type of car out here: some are driving a car just like yours, some are driving Indy cars and are way ahead of everyone else, and some are driving cars on the verge of breaking down all the time. Each student has a different acquisition rate for the knowledge you want them to learn, and only a portion of them will be keeping pace with the pace you are comfortable with delivering lessons. That's why making sure there are challenge activities for the "zoomers" and time to help coach or offer more support to those who are struggling (maybe through Khan academy lectures, recording mini-lectures they can review at home at night as a podcast or short explanatory video, etc.) could help those not keeping pace, and eventually also create a library of resources for you to have for future classes as well... But Dan is right- you need to teach children, not content, and if you keep that front and center, things have a tendency to work out- something farther a long may not take as much time to teach as you thought, etc.
Teaching is more like improv, where you have to adjust to the audience you have, not the perfect audience, or the audience you might anticipate, so flexibility and doing what's best for the students is always the right thing to do.

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