By Anna Marie LaChance
Picture yourself as an undergraduate student, sitting in a standard lecture hall, staring at a whiteboard as a professor makes their way through a long lecture. Maybe it’s a detailed mathematical derivation or a careful dissection of a literary work. You and the nearly one hundred other students sit in silence and do your best to keep track of everything the professor is writing as well as everything the professor is saying. Occasionally, the professor attempts to probe the audience for their thoughts or questions so far; between all the listening and note-taking, few have had the time to process and think critically about the lecture content. Thus, nobody speaks up, and so the professor returns to the lecture, nervously assuming that everybody is following along adequately. After the fifty minutes have concluded, you and the other students close your notebooks and quietly shuffle through rows of desks so you can go about the rest of your respective days, probably to go to another room to repeat this story two or three more times. If you’re like most students, you and your classmates will lose the ability to recall about a third of the material covered within 24 hours (Murre et al, 2015).
This experience is all too common, being familiar to students and professors alike.
Some intellectually mature students will know to take time after class to talk to the professor, review their notes, and make connections to in-class concepts, but most find it difficult to stay engaged during lecture and leave class assuming that they know the material merely because they were present and took some notes. Provided no dedicated time to reflect on the material or hold discussions with their cohort, many will lack a deeper understanding of the material down the line.
However, there is a well-tested and intuitive alternative to this dry lecture style that increases student engagement, interaction, and content retention. In pedagogical jargon, this practice is called the “pause procedure”, and it involves taking short, strategically-placed breaks in which students perform some sort of activity to help clarify, assimilate, and retain the class material. What the students do during these breaks is totally flexible; they can answer a question posed by the instructor, share notes with students around them, work in groups to solve a problem, or simply summarize the content of the lecture in a word or phrase. For many courses, group problem-solving is already baked into the course design, but other courses—those with long mathematical derivations or huge amounts of information to be digested at once—can easily take a few minutes out of their lectures to make sure that every student in the class is on the same page.
The literature on this practice is extensive and covers a wide array of subject areas. In a typical example, Bachhel conducted a study between an experimental and control group, where the experimental group was provided three two-to-three-minute pauses during their fifty-minute neuromuscular physiology lectures (Bachhel, 2014). During the pauses, students had an opportunity to work in pairs to “discuss and rework their notes, compare their notes and fill [in] missing information”. Fifteen days after the lectures, a thirty-question multiple choice test was given and the students were polled on their satisfaction with the technique. Among 74 students in each class, average scores increased from 21.05 (control) to 23.00 (pause procedure), and 83.6% of the latter group reported a positive response to the method, citing an improved lecture recall ability. More studies show positive results among chiropractic education (Zhang, 2016), engineering (Ruhl, 1987), nursing (Korvick, 2010), and more. The article that inspired this post was actually an article on Chemical & Engineering News, which reported how a packed general chemistry lecture is using short problem-solving sessions to break up long lectures (Satyanarayana, 2019).
This practice provides an extra benefit for classes with sensitive subjects. A study done by political science professor Karen T. Litfin shows what happens when students are given the time and space to encourage thoughtful discussion on politically-charged topics.
When students are given short breaks to reflect, they are able to reduce their stress levels and engage in civil discussion and collaborative action (Litfin, 2018). This is crucial for an increasingly diverse student body in increasingly-charged times when differences in opinion are more difficult to discuss than ever.
Furthermore, the pause procedure can benefit students with learning disabilities; short breaks have been shown to help students with learning disabilities improve their note-taking skills and their ability to recall information (Ruhl, 1995). All instructors want their class material to be accessible to students of diverse backgrounds and abilities, and the pause procedure provides a simple framework for putting these desires into practice.
In the Fall 2017 semester, I had an opportunity to test a version of this method for myself when I taught a course for senior-level chemical engineering students. On Mondays and Wednesdays, these students sat through lectures presented by me and the course instructor, but on Fridays they were in the computer lab working together to solve problems and, when necessary, being “lectured at” by me for more information. On those lecture-heavy Fridays, I broke up my lectures with short multiple-choice quizzes via Kahoot!, an online quiz-taking platform accessible via web browser. This kept students’ attention, partially due to the fact that they could choose their own usernames and had a scoring system for answering questions quickly and correctly (one class’ top scorers: “skullcrusher_420”, “Jeb Bush”, and “a giant bag of rice”). It also had the effect of getting students to think on their feet about the lecture content for that week, and provided a guiding framework for how to solve their in-class and homework problems assigned on that day. When reviewing for their midterm exam, I even had students ask me if I could provide them my Kahoot! questions as a study guide, demonstrating the quiz breaks’ effectiveness as an integrated component of long-form lectures. Outside of this class, I’ve also spoken to a few of the undergrads in my research lab about their experience with the pause procedure, and for those that had experienced it, they found it to be a very useful technique for staying on track during lecture. They’ve used the extra time to finish writing what instructors have written on the board, share their notes with other students, or simply take a brief mental break if they’re feeling overwhelmed by the content (or other undergraduate stressors; money/family/relationships/etc.).
I hope that these examples show professors that active learning measures are easy to implement into even the most rigorous, content-heavy lectures. They take only a few minutes out of class time and tend to have a measurable impact on the students’ knowledge retention and their ability to communicate, think critically, and work in groups to solve complex problems.