When you lecture, take a break!

When I work with faculty on improving their teaching, one of the areas that I constantly try to get them to improve is in their lecturing. Particularly in certain disciplines, lecturing is the primary instructional approach used by professors. Lecturing is probably the oldest teaching approach and can be effective. However, lecturing can also be done very poorly as the stereotype of the professor reading form the yellowed lecture notes illustrates. I try to convince faculty to include more active learning approaches into their classes and I find the pause procedure is an excellent vehicle for this. In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from my book on college teaching (Teaching for Learning)  that describes the pause procedure and how to use it effectively in the college classroom.

IDEA #2 Pause Procedure


The Pause Procedure IDEA is an instructional approach that proceeds much as its name suggests:  mini-lectures are interspersed with intentional pauses of 30 seconds to 2 minutes. These pauses are designed specifically for the purpose of allowing students time to reflect on the newly learned material, to think about questions that might be asked, and to clarify concepts not firmly understood. During the pause, the instructor takes questions from the students, generally to allow students to clarify information from the lecture.

One major limitation of the traditional lecture is that neither the instructor nor the students may understand the extent to which the learners understand the material being presented. Through the use of the Pause Procedure, instructors can alleviate this major failing by requiring students to stop, reflect, think, and act. Overall, the Pause Procedure presents a low-risk and high-reward opportunity to improve student learning through lectures. Indeed, researchers have documented an increase in student learning outcomes when the Pause Procedure is used in addition to the traditional lecture (Ruhl, Huges, & Schloss, 1987).

Guiding Principles

Advocates of the Pause Procedure suggest that during traditional lectures, mental lapses can occur at a rate that exceeds students’ ability to organize and store information (Rowe, 1980). That is, students typically only listen actively for a short time and then begin to drop in and out of attention. If those drops are frequent enough, they miss too much information to be able to put the pieces together and thus cannot store the information in their long-term memories.

Pausing also allows students to deal with the physiological and psychological responses that keep them from listening effectively for longer periods. When they have a “break” from active listening, they can use the time to consolidate the smaller block of information that they have received. Because they are tasked with asking questions, this approach requires them to take an active stance toward the information presented in the lecture. It allows them to return to listening refreshed after a change in activities.


Determine ahead of time when to allow students to ask whatever questions they might have and when to provide some structure to their questions (e.g., students will ask about points they need to clarify in their notes). This decision should rest on the level of knowledge and understanding of students; the newer the students, the more structure they will need. If questions are to be provided, it is advisable to have a few questions at hand that require the students to really think about the material or how to apply what was just learned. Avoid simple recall or recognition types of questions.


  • Give a mini-lecture lasting approximately 10-15 minutes.
  • Following the mini-lecture, pause for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. During this pause, students are given the chance to assimilate, clarify, and record the information presented during the prior mini-lecture. If you plan to ask a question, provide the question and let the students know they are to pause for the amount of time you designate BEFORE they are to answer.
  • Resume class, alternating mini-lectures and pauses as time permits.

Sample IDEA Pairings

Guided Note-Taking (IDEA #1). During the pause, ask students question about their notes. This variation provides them with a framework or prompt for asking questions, which is particularly useful for new students.

Note-taking Pairs (IDEA #25). Simply have individuals work for a few minutes to reconstruct notes and identify what they have questions about, then work with their group members attempting to answer as many questions as possible. They next ask you any questions still unresolved by peers.

Concept Maps (IDEA #79). During the pause, ask students to draw a Concept Map of ideas presented during the prior mini-lecture. This pause presents an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of new ideas.


The effectiveness of the Pause Procedure rests with what students do during the pause. Advanced students may be able to manage their time time effectively on their own, using the time in the way that can best benefit them. New students, however, may not have the skill needed to make effective use of the time. Some scaffolding suggestions can be of use. For more introductory-level students, you may wish to suggest that students check their notes for gaps and ask question about those gaps. Another alternate is to have short prompts for student thinking. For example, “What point is clearest to you? What is the least clear point from the lecture?”

The pause provides students with an opportunity to ask questions to clarify any points upon which they might be confused. This opportunity can allow students to ask for information they might have missed, clarify anything confusing, and catch up in their note-taking. All of these activities in turn can prevent students from internalizing misinformation.

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