Why a Simple Pause at the End of Class Is So Powerful

Posted September 6, 2018

By Gail Taylor Rice


“Our students live in cacophony. Clamour, chatter and din fill their ears, and may even injure them…. We can educate ourselves to be models of intellectuals who trust and value silence, who practice what we have always known; when no one is speaking, someone is learning. We can create oases of silence where cool springs of insight trickle and flow.”(1)

A black button that says "Pause" on it in yellow letters

I slipped into an auditorium where nearly every seat was taken—150 medical and doctoral students in the basic sciences. The class on the topic of oral pathology was to be taught by a relatively new faculty member on our campus.

It didn’t take me long to see why this professor was considered to be one of the best. She had spent hours developing detailed slides to illustrate her topic. She used good examples. She spoke clearly and at a good tempo. But, she was the only one who spoke. She didn’t ask a single question of the students and the students didn’t ask a single question from her. There were no pauses for students to consult with each other, to apply the ideas presented to a case, or to write an answer to a thought question. Students simply sat and listened. When the time was up, everyone quickly left.

A couple of days later, I shared my notes with the professor. I showed her a number of positive strategies she used in her teaching and complimented her on her excellent learning materials. I shared my observations of the attention levels of the students, especially my awareness of the learner fatigue that seemed to be present toward the end of the hour, as students note-taking diminished, their eyes began to glaze over, and shoulders slumped. Some even took out their phones. The instructor took this feedback but didn’t ask me for any suggestions. As I was leaving, I mentioned that I would be happy to look at her next lecture plan to see if I might have any ideas to help with student engagement, if she would like. She looked quite surprised at this and asked, “What would you have done for this lecture?”

When I showed her that no one spoke but her and that we know that the person doing the talking is the one doing the learning, she responded, “Oh, I know. I love giving this lecture because it nails it down in my head.”

A few pauses during the hour-long session could have made a big difference—the difference between a well-delivered presentation and a powerful learning experience for students, but when I tried to suggest this, her reply was “Oh, no—I don’t have time for any of that—I must end on time and I have carefully planned for each minute so I am sure to cover all of the important points.” It was all about her. It was all about teaching, not about learning.

Myths That Keep Us from Pausing

How many times have we been in similar situations? Too much content to cover and not enough time—so we fill all of our allotted time with teacher talk? It is so hard for us to give up the myths that shape our classroom behavior:

  • If I don’t say it, they won’t learn it
  • If I DO say it, they WILL learn it
  • I must cover the content

Cognitive Science Research Supports Pausing

But we cannot ignore important studies, starting as early as the 70’s and 80’s and replicated within the last few years, which all report similar outcomes. These studies looked at pausing briefly during the lecture. Instructors in these studies taught two groups—one had lecture the whole time, the other took an occasional break, a 1-3-minute pause. The teachers who spent less time talking covered less content, but paused to allow students to briefly share their notes with each other, to discuss together, or to instruct each other. In every case, the group who had less lecture--less material covered--had the following results:

  • More content recalled from the presentation
  • Better test results, short term and long term
  • Higher evaluation scores for the presentation from participants (2-8)

Talking Equals Learning: Listening Rarely Does

These are outcomes we all seek as instructors, but yet we find it hard to believe that if we talk less our students will learn more. We have a difficult time giving up the podium. C. Bland Tomkinson says it well, “Cover less, discover more.”(9) In other words, it is wise to talk less and plan for pauses—opportunities for students to do some of the talking, because only when they share in the talking are they truly learning.

Herman has it figured out.

Herman, a student at school is looking up at this father saying: "They don't give us time to learn anything in school; we have to listen to the teacher all day".
Herman © 1977 LaughingStock International inc. Reprinted by permission by ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION for UFS. All rights reserved.

Pauses Are Important—Particularly at the Start, Middle, and Close of the Lesson

One small change in our teaching can lead to big changes in learning. A great way to try a small change is to insert an occasional pause into our lectures. In Part 2 of this blog post, we will examine characteristics of good pauses throughout the learning experience and we will see what the literature tells us about what constitutes a good starting pause, as well as a good middle pause, but let’s focus on closing pauses for now. Chip and Dan Heath (10) suggest that teachers can create memorable, meaningful moments by paying attention to endings—if something ends well, we tend to let that ending represent the entire experience. What we are discovering is that when we pause at the end, we can create these moments that will “add extra oomph into a lesson,” (11) or reverberate for hours after the lesson.(12)

Power of a Good Closing Pause: Get Students to Commit

Finley’s “extra oomph” will only happen when learners create and share their own meaning of the lesson. They must do more than merely think about it. If we seek behavior change, we will give students opportunities to make public commitments. We hear from motivational speakers and life change specialists that it is important to not only think about but also write or speak of our goals. An important study highlights this idea. Nearly 300 adults were asked about goals they had for the near future—things like losing weight, buying a house, selling a car. Some were asked to write down their goals. Others spoke to a partner about them and others were encouraged to simply think about their goals. After one month, the participants reported on their results. Those who had written down or spoken about their goals achieved those goals at a significantly higher rate than those who had merely thought about them.(13) This has such importance for us as instructors wanting to bring about significant change in our students. Why would we let them leave our classrooms or laboratories without tapping into this important strategy? Let’s get them to commit to more than just thinking about what they have learned. Let’s encourage them to write or talk about what they will do with what they are learning. In so doing, we not only increase retention, but we create the conditions for action. Those last few minutes of class are so powerful that we cannot afford to waste them with our summaries. Our students’ own written and spoken summaries and their ideas about how to apply their new knowledge —public commitments—will create memorable classes but also life-changing behavior change.

Questions We Can Ask in Closing

Writing or speaking answers to these kinds of questions will help students to create powerful endings:

  • What is one thing you learned today?
  • What concepts or insights were important to you from class?
  • What did you understand better after today’s class?
  • How would you summarize today’s class for someone who wasn’t here?
  • What will you do differently as a result of being in class today?
  • Why are you glad you were here today?
  • How will what we discussed today affect your professional or personal success?
  • What is your action plan after being here today?

Characteristics of a Good Closing Pause

These kinds of questions, posed at the close of learning, will contribute to an ideal closing pause, which may accomplish one or more of these goals:

  • Review content
  • Require personal reflection—develop new insights
  • Celebrate accomplishments
  • Motivate action/follow up
  • Bring full circle and create a bookend(14)

James Lang, in his article, “Small Changes in Teaching: The Last 5 Minutes of Class,”(15) gives a good example of bringing full circle. At the beginning of class give students a few questions that you plan to address. Then at the end, have them take a look back at the questions and share how their thinking has developed.

Examples of Closing Pauses Making a Difference

An image of the cover of Gail Taylor Rice's book "Hitting Pause"
Here is a good example of reviewing, reflecting, celebrating, and motivating. One of my colleagues looked for a powerful way to pause at the end of a workshop she presents to health professional students on the importance of being sensitive to the challenges of aging when they are providing care to patients. She has the students go through a series of activities, like putting Vicks in their nose and then trying to identify tastes or smells or putting a brace on their leg so it won’t bend and then trying to get in and out of an automobile. This was followed by a lecture/discussion. To close, she gave each student a sticky note on which they were to respond to the question, “What is the one thing you do not want to forget from our time together today?” Students completed their responses and then brought them to the front of the room. Finally, students were asked to select one of the sticky notes that best summarized all of the rest of the notes. The one they selected said, “I will never rush an old person again.” The student who had written this was applauded and given a small award.(16) It is hard to imagine any of the students present that day ever forgetting that class or the take-home messages they had publicly shared. I am sure that the closing pause resulted in at least one individual present who has never rushed an elderly patient since.

How many times have we taught classes with powerful messages but we lost much of the potential power of that class because we failed to provide that closing pause which asked the question, “What is the one thing you don’t want to forget from our time together today?” Because we didn’t ask it, students didn’t think about it and quickly forgot most of what we had hoped to achieve during our time together.

A Suggestion for the Basic Science Instructor

Here is an idea for our instructor of the large basic science class. During the last few minutes of class, she might ask students to write a multiple-choice exam question over the topic, share it with a neighbor, improve each other’s questions, write their names on the back of the card, and turn them in—with the promise of bonus points for each if a question is used on an upcoming exam. This would give them an opportunity to review the content of the hour, a chance to connect with a classmate, and an exciting opportunity to earn some recognition and a bonus point or two.(17) This pause is particularly well-suited for a content-heavy class, as it provides students with opportunities to review. It seems that this immediate review has advantages over the more typical review done some time later when students pull out their notes to prepare for the upcoming exam. When students review frequently during a class—most suggest every 15-20 minutes, but at least, at the close—retention is improved, both short- and long-term.

Importance of Keeping Pauses Fresh

Not only is it important to give our students those last few minutes of class to make meaning for themselves. It is also worth taking the time to change things up—to avoid becoming too predictable. We professors do tend to get into ruts fairly easily, and a minute paper every class period will get old quickly. Research supports the fact that the brain pays more attention to what is new or different than what has always been the same. So it is worth looking for different ways to help students review, value, and plan at the end of the learning session.

Students leaning over a table looking at various papers and notes discussing ideas
Help students find personal connections to new material with memorable pause activities before the end of class time. [Image: Public Domain]

Sources for Ideas for Closing Pauses

There are a number of creative and fresh ideas for closing learning with a meaningful pause. Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning, provides stories of closing pauses in chapters 5 and 7 and gives 26 closing pause ideas in the appendix. (See discount offer from Stylus Publications, LLC, below). The book also cites a number of websites for additional ideas.

Conclusion: We all hope that our classes have life-changing effects on our students. But the reality is that this rarely, if ever, happens. Every class period is largely taken up with lecture—lecture without any breaks or pauses—lectures which are pretty much like all of the previous lectures. Lang suggests that improving teaching requires minimal changes to our lecture plans and yet has the power to boost the learning in substantive ways. Perhaps if we focused on creating oases of silent, powerful pauses during those last few minutes of class, we might transform our classes into unforgettably meaningful experiences.

Stay Tuned

I’ll be back on the Noba blog soon with a follow-up post focused on the why and how of creating good Starting and Middle pauses.


Dr. Gail Rice is a professor at Loma Linda University, where she directs faculty development for the campus. She teaches for the Harvard Macy Institute for Education in the Health Professions in Boston and the USC Keck Medical School Innovations in Medical Education conference. She presents for organizations and campuses worldwide and has published books and articles for peer reviewed journals on various topics relating to creative, effective teaching in higher education. Her most recent publication is Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning, published by Stylus Publications. Gail and her husband, Richard, have devoted their lives to finding fresh and effective ways to teach university students.

You can contact Gail either through her website - www.drgailrice.com , or by email - [email protected]

Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning - Book Discount

Pauses constitute a simple technique for enlivening and enhancing the effectiveness of lectures, or indeed of any form of instruction, whether a presentation or in an experiential setting. This book presents the evidence and rationale for breaking up lectures into shorter segments by using pauses to focus attention, reinforce key points, and review learning. It also provides 65 adaptable pause ideas to use at the opening of class, mid-way through, or as closers.

For 25% off Hitting Pause, follow the link below and use code HP25 when ordering.


Offer expires 12/31/2018.


1.Marken, R. (2008) Silences. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Council of 3M National Teaching Fellows of the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, p 115.

2.Ruhl KL, Hughes CA, Schloss PJ. 1987. Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teach Educ Spec Educ. 10:14–18.

3.Ruhl KL, Suritsky S. 1995. The pause procedure and/or an outline: effect on immediate free recall and lecture notes taken by college students with learning disabilities. Learn Disabil Q. 18:2–11

4.Stuart J, Rutherford RJ. 1978. Medical student concentration during lectures. Lancet. 2:514–516.

5.Lukas W. Richards, Amy T. Wang, Saswati Mahapatra, Sarah M. Jenkins, Nerissa M. Collins, Thomas J. Beckman & Christopher M. Wittich (2017) Use of the pause procedure in continuing medical education: A randomized controlled intervention study, Medical Teacher, 39:1, 74-78, DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2016.1230664

6.Ghorbani, A and Ghazvini, K. 2016. Using paper presentation breaks during didactic lectures improves learning of physiology in undergraduate students. Adv Physiol Educ. Mar;40(1):93-97. Pubmed/26873895.

7.Zhang, N, Henderson, CN. 2016. Brief, cooperative peer-instruction sessions during lectures enhance student recall and comprehension. J Chiropr Educ. 2016 Oct 30(2):87-93. Pubmed 26967766.

8.Bachhel, R., Thaman, RG. 2014. Effective use of pause procedure to enhance student engagement and learning. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014 Aug 8(8)XM01-XM03. Pub med/25302251

9.Tomkinson, CB. 24 May 2018, [email protected]

10.Heath, C., Heath, D. 2017. The Power of Moments. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

11.Finley, T. 2015. 22 powerful closure activities. Retrieved from www.edutopia.org/blog/22-powerful-closure-activiti...

12.Lucero, R. 2017. Closure activities: making that last impression. Retrieved from tilt.colostate.edu/teachingResources/tips/tip.cfm?tipid=148

13.Matthews, G. (n.d.) Study focuses on strategies for achieving goals, resolutions. Retrieved from www.dominican.edu/dominicannews/study-highlights-strategies-for-achieving goals.

14.Lutsky, N. 2010. Teaching psychology’s endings: The simple gifts of a reflective close. In D. S. Dunn, B. B. Beins, M. A. McCarthy, & G. . Hill IV (Eds), Best practices for teaching beginnings and endings in the psychology major: Research, cases, and recommendations (pp. 331-349). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

15.Lang, J. 2016. Small changes in teaching: The last 5 minutes of class. The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 7, 2016.

16.Rice, G. 2018. Hitting Pause: 65 lecture breaks to refresh and reinforce learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications, LLC. (Sticky Note Closure, CP #45).

17.Rice, G. ibid. (Exam Question Challenge, CP #58).