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Hitting Pause – 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Students might wish that there was a pause button connected to their college professors. How helpful it would be if their instructors recognized the need to stop talking occasionally so that learners could rewind, take a moment to check for understanding, and prepare to continue. 


The posting below looks at the benefits of regular pausing by instructors during lecture presentations.  It is from the Introduction in the book, Hitting Pause – 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning by Gail Taylor Rice. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.

Copyright © 2018 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Hitting Pause – 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning


Excerpt from the Introduction

If we slip into a colleague’s classroom, we see a lot of what Jensen (2008) calls “nonstop learning” (p. 220), which is when teachers talk and there are no pauses for students to interact with what they are hearing. This is what we observe: The teacher is in the front of the room at the podium, PowerPoint slides are up on the screen, and the only break occurs when the instructor momentarily stops explaining and asks a question. If anyone responds, usually a student near the front of the room answers before anyone else has a chance to think of an answer. If instructors who think that their students are actively engaged because one person has come up with an answer to a question could observe their classrooms from the back of the room, they might notice that many of their students are looking at e-mail, texting on their mobile phones, and not paying attention. We rarely observe colleagues putting students into groups to solve a problem or a dilemma or to work on an application activity. When we see what a difference such simple activities make in the learning experience of our students, we realize it is worth what it takes to seek resources to help us develop these purposeful pauses to energize our classrooms.

Whatever approach we take to teaching, it is essential to present concepts in small segments and give students occasional breaks so they can retrieve information and engage with the concepts being introduced (Agarwal, 2017). One literature professor has a useful metaphor to help her manage learning periods in need of pausing: She conceives the classroom as a play with various scenes. As her class proceeds, she moves her students from one scene to the next with opening and closing acts for each of the scenes. Another teacher uses a narrative metaphor and considers starting and closing pauses as bookends for the class period. He pauses at the start to set the stage for the story to follow and then pauses at the end to bring it back full circle.

Hit Pause

We can put away our electronic devices when we need a break from a steady flow of input. When we need to stop the music, the video, or the voice that is talking too fast, all we need to do is hit the pause button. Hitting the pause button provides that needed rest to catch our breath, look back over what has come before, reflect, meditate, refresh, and prepare ourselves before we resume.

Students might wish that there was a pause button connected to their college professors. How helpful it would be if their instructors recognized the need to stop talking occasionally so that learners could rewind, take a moment to check for understanding, and prepare to continue.

When instructors stop talking and allow learners to reflect on what they have learned, they turn a routine lecture into a powerful learning experience. Jensen (2008) suggests that “not learning breaks” are “necessary for the brain to process and transfer learning from short- to long-term memory” (p. 220). 

College students would probably be surprised if their instructor did hit the pause button during class because they are not used to expecting learning to happen during class. Ask typical college students when they learn or how they prepare for their exams, and they will usually say they pull out their class notes or the teachers’ handouts right before the exam and begin studying in earnest only then. I’ve observed countless college and graduate students enter the classroom, pick up the instructor’s printed handout, and find a seat near the back of the room.  Confident that the handout contains everything that is important to know, they feel quite comfortable closing their eyes and taking a nap during class, especially when the teacher is showing PowerPoint slides in a darkened room. These students assume that learning is reserved for the wee hours of the morning, when memorizing key concepts from the handouts in preparation for the exam the next day.

Students who plan to relax during class may resist the professor’s efforts to pause midway through for students to think about a particular concept and solve a problem. But these learning pauses are just what students need for efficient learning and retention. These students studying during the midnight hours to prepare for the final exam will actually recognize concepts they grappled with during those classroom learning pauses. They will probably remember very little else from the lecture or the handout from a few weeks before, but they will not forget the idea they debated with the person sitting next to them.

Pauses inject stimulating experiences at critical moments in learning, and these powerful moments can be liberating. Professors can rely on these pauses to provide active learning opportunities and require minimal changes to their lesson plan. They won’t have to flip their classrooms or switch to team-based learning. If they hit pause in the right way at the right times, they can rehabilitate their lectures and improve learning in their classes.

Benefits of Pausing

Well-timed pauses can provide students with the benefits of active learning – increased interest, motivation, and retention. Learning pauses help students focus so that their attention is not lost. Pauses allow students to personalize learning and improve retention. Pauses allow students to check their understanding and practice retrieval and increase interest, arouse curiosity or anticipation, or help activate prior knowledge. A pause may also give learners opportunities to predict outcomes, which increases their interest in learning more about a topic. Closing pauses ask students to commit to action and increase the likelihood of transferring their knowledge into practice.

Pausing benefits instructors as well as students. When instructors pause, we can get feedback from our students about what they have learned and how they respond to our instruction. Pausing also gives us a chance to catch our breath as we look ahead and plan how the rest of the class period will proceed.

Although using pauses is critical to effective learning, it is essential to any profitable learning session. A starting pause will get learners ready for instruction and not be distracted by other thoughts. How important is it to avoid streaming nonstop information before finding out where learners are, what they already know, and what their expectations are? This is true for any kind of learning, not just a lecture, such as a laboratory or skills practicum, clinic orientation, team-based learning class, discussion class, a short one-on-one conference with a student or patient, and online instruction. It is important to pause at the start of instruction, but it may be even more important for learners in all settings to have the opportunity to look back at the close of instruction – whether it is a five-minute tutorial, an online module, a conference address, or a class session – and wrap it up by identifying what they valued and what actions they plan for following up. This final pause is just as necessary after an interactive learning experience, such as a simulation or objective structured clinical examination, as it is after listening to a lecture, observing a panel discussion, or viewing a film or video presentation. Brian Sztabnik (2015) says it well in the following:


That is the crux of lesson planning right there – endings and beginnings. If we fail to engage students at the start, we may never get them back. If we don’t know the end result, we risk moving haphazardly from one activity to the next. Every moment in a lesson plan should tell

Recall the following questions:

-       Is it possible to teach well using lectures?

-       If so, can we plan good lectures?

-       Can we make our lectures interactive without totally redesigning them?

-       Is it possible to take those lectures that have stood the test of time and update them with some simple tweaks that will allow us to increase student motivation to listen and learn?

-       Can we do this without a total revamp of our lesson plans? Can we teach effectively without changing our lectures into discussions and active learning events?

-       Is it possible to keep most of those PowerPoint slides and find ways to build student interest into what we have already developed?

The answer to the questions about saving lectures is a resounding yes. We can do this by building introductory pauses, concluding pauses, and intermediate pauses into our lectures, which does not require changing the lesson plan, although it does require deciding what can be removed from our lecture to make space for the pauses. Focusing on how we start and end learning and adding pauses to our teaching will encourage student engagement and interest, increase active participation and transfer of learning, and cause students to leave our classrooms and laboratories inspired with the value of what they have learned. As we apply the latest findings from cognitive science to our teaching plans, we will discover the joy of pausing with our students to allow learning to sink in, to take on its own life, and to embed itself into each learner’s experience.


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