The First Five Minutes of Class: Power of Hitting Pause

Posted May 1, 2019

by Gail Rice



Image of a Pause Button

The good news is this - We can change our lectures into active learning experiences with the simple, small change of adding purposeful pauses. These pauses don’t have to take much time away from delivering content but they will make the difference between minimal learning and exciting improvements in retention.

In an earlier blog we examined the value of pausing at the end of class to reflect on the learning experience. We reviewed literature that supports the idea that learning will have a stronger and more lasting impact if teachers step back and allow learners to reflect and share their summaries and action plans before leaving the learning session.

In addition to closing pauses, there are two other critical times in a learning session when pausing is particularly important:

  • The start
  • The middle (in a longer session)

In this article, we will examine what we might gain from pausing at the start of learning, as well as throughout the lesson to allow learners to personalize and experience concepts for themselves.

Pauses Create a Positive Learning Environment

Pauses provide an opportunity to create an environment which is conducive to learning. When we take a few minutes to pause at the start of class, we create a safe environment, one which communicates that students are valued. Students learn more when they are in a positive environment. It may be good to remind ourselves that people think better when they are happy (McCullough, 2017).

What you can expect from a starting pause

Starting pauses can help with any of the following objectives:

  • Grab attention, focus, and minimize distractions
  • Enhance power of the lesson
  • Create interest, curiosity, and anticipation
  • Bring about positive expectations
  • Connect to prior knowledge
  • Provide a safe environment and create community

So often we assume that these objectives have already been accomplished. We think our students come to class thinking, “I am so excited about this lecture, I have read the assignment, and I have my questions ready.” This may not be the case, however. I am afraid that many times my students come to class not even knowing what the day’s topic is. We don’t take a moment to check our students’ interest, desire, prior experiences, or exposure.

If we don’t take a starting pause to provide ourselves some feedback, we may launch into the lesson and waste time teaching something that is already understood, or, worse, teaching something that no one desires because they don’t see the value of it.

Image of a brain, wrapped with a chain and a lock
Stzabnik (2015) suggests that there are 8 minutes in the learning experience that matter most. “If a lesson does not start off strong by activating prior knowledge, creating anticipation, or establishing goals, student interest wanes, and you have to do some heavy lifting to get it back.” If only we had paused for a moment for a simple introductory experience, everything might have been different.

Ideal learning begins with an experience (Kolb, 2014). Starting pauses offer us opportunities to provide that experience to kick off learning. This activity might involve reflecting, moving, writing, watching a video clip, taking a quick quiz, or responding to questions. The starting pause is usually short—a quick introduction.

Less is More—This is SO Hard for Us to Believe

If we are to truly maximize learning when we teach, we must embrace the fact that we cannot do all of the talking—we must cover less content—we must give up at least a few minutes of our lecture hour. Students learn better when they have opportunities to speak or write about their learning. We cannot ignore the fact that whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning (Bowman, 2011; Doyle, 2011).

Because it is so very hard for us to give up the lectern, it is probably worth our time to review a couple of pivotal studies.

Ruhl and colleagues examined the difference that pausing might make. The study contrasted two classes in which one group had traditional lectures and the other had three two-minute breaks for students to share their ideas with other. At the end of the five-week experiment, each group of students took an examination. The instructors were quite surprised to discover a significant difference between the performance of the groups—and in the opposite direction from what they expected. The group who had less lecture each day performed better on the exam (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987).

Abstract image of a person and their thoughts
Another study supports the idea that less is more. In this study, medical school professors prepared three different versions of a lecture on the same topic—one which was less dense, one of medium density, and one of high density. The higher density lectures had more new concepts introduced and fewer examples provided. Students randomly assigned to each of the three groups took a test immediately after the lectures and then took an unexpected test again 15 days later. The students in the low-density group performed better on both the immediate post-test and, even more so, on the two-week later post-test (Russell, Hendricson & Herbert, 1984).

These studies illustrate the limits of the human mind. Our students are only capable of learning so much new information at a time. If we think we can race along with fast-paced, high-density lectures, we are probably fooling ourselves. Students learn more when we lecture less, when they do more of the talking, and when we pause to ask them how they are processing what we have tried to teach them (Rice, 2018).

Middle Pauses Help Reduce Cognitive Load

Ruhl’s study focused on the benefits of pausing during the middle portions of the learning session. Many, if not all, of our students cannot take in more than about 20 minutes or so of new material at a time (Major, Harris & Zakrajsek, 2016; Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). We are told that even the best and most entertaining lecturers begin to lose the attention of their audience within 15-20 minutes after beginning (Jensen, 2005). Since most lectures last an hour or so, we may have to plan for more than just a starting and closing pause. We may have to allow for some short learning breaks throughout the lecture to reduce cognitive load.

Reducing cognitive load and keeping students’ attention requires regular mental breaks (Howard, 1994; Major et al., 2016). We know that chunking is a valuable strategy to help us break our teaching into manageable sections. Pauses allow us to chunk. When we pause occasionally, we give our students opportunities to:

  • Refocus
  • Review
  • Relieve cognitive load
  • Retrieve
  • Reenergize

Three Quick and Easy Mid-Pauses

Image of a Book Cover of "Hitting Pause" written by Gail Taylor Rice

The book, Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning (Rice, 2018), provides a number of illustrations of teachers who have paused to enhance their students’ learning. There are three pause techniques that are particularly well suited to the middle portion of the lecture. They are in common use and well-known, but worth reviewing.In order to use these techniques, instructors will plan ahead of time for some thought-provoking questions—perhaps writing them down in the margins of their notes, or preparing a slide to project the question. Then they can choose one of these techniques to allow students to reflect and share their ideas.

Think Pair Share

The first of these is the think-pair-share technique, otherwise known as the buzz group, the “turn to your partner” and many other variations (Rice, 2018, MP 24). Simply ask the group to turn to the person sitting close to them, in groups of two or three, and share their thoughts with each other. After a short time, ask for a few to share with the large group and then proceed.

Short Write

Students write their response to the question, either on their notes, or on a card provided by the instructor, or on a blog or with an audience response system, such as PollEverywhere. The Short Write opportunity (Rice, 2018, MP 23) is a nice alternative to the Think Pair Share technique, and has some advantages, such as allowing the more introverted student opportunities to think quietly before jotting down ideas.

Pause Procedure Question

The Pause Procedure Question (Rice, 2018, MP25) constitutes simply asking the question in a powerful way. The teacher says something like this, “I am going to ask you a question. I want each of you to think of your answer and be ready to answer if I call on you.” The beauty of this way of questioning is that the tension in the room is raised for all of the students. They feel self-conscious in front of their colleagues and they will usually exert some effort in thinking of an answer to the question that has been posed. 

Abstract image of a brain raising a hand to ask a question

Barriers to Hitting Pause

Trying something new in our teaching requires a willingness to risk. Those of us who are reluctant to incorporate starting, middle, and closing pauses into our lecture plans may need to remind ourselves of these important ideas:

  • Teaching less can lead to more learning (Ruhl, et al., 1987).
  • Small changes can make powerful differences in student learning (Lang, 2016).
  • Learning is directly proportional to the amount of fun you are having (Pike, 2003).

We might not be comfortable pausing with certain groups we teach. We may be concerned that pauses are too childlike for our sophisticated audiences.

However, when we plan a playful method to ask a substantive question, our students thank us for the chance to test their understanding and get feedback. Usually they don’t mind if they have a little fun in the process.

A statistics teacher reluctantly decided to try a few of these pause techniques in her class. The first one was the stand up, hands up, pair up technique (Rice, 2018, MP36) for a fairly simple mathematical problem—computing a t-test. Later in the class period, the teacher had students in small groups use a simultaneous Round Robin Pause (MP38) for a more challenging question requiring interpretation of statistical test results. The students’ comments at the end of the class period illustrate the value of those middle pauses:

  • “This is the first session in this course that I can truly say I enjoyed. I was always nervous in this class before, but today I relaxed. It was helpful to be able to work together to solve the math problems, as I had a check on my calculations with my partner.”
  • “The “Round Robin” activity was reassuring when we could talk together and use our group consensus to reach a conclusion.”
  • “Thanks for your creativity in planning today’s class. The time flew. I felt that I really understood the t-test calculation and the case we worked on...”
  • “I really learned a lot in class today… Working in groups is much more reassuring than trying to do math and answering stat questions by yourself. Hope for more classes like this.”

The statistics teacher was glad she took a risk and gave students a chance to work together and share ideas. Giving students some pauses to help them feel more confident about their skills and to receive feedback about how well they were applying course concepts to examples similar to what they would have in their upcoming mid-term exam made a big difference.

Even though these breaks take a few minutes of class time, they pay off in big ways.

  • Chunks of learning work better
  • Take a break
  • Let students catch a breath
  • Less may really be more


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 - , 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 12/31/2019


Bowman, S. (2011). Using brain science to make training stick. Glenbrook, NV: Bowperson.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Howard, P. (1994). Owner’s manual for the brain. Austin, TX: Leorinian Press.

Jensen, E. P. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2016). Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. New York, NY: Routledge.

McCullough, D., (2017, April 17). Interview by C. Rose. The American Spirit, CBS This Morning [Television Broadcast]. New York, NY: Columbia Broadcasting System.

Pike, R. W. (2003). Creative Training Techniques Handbook: Tips, Tactics, and How-To's for Delivering Effective Training (3rd ed.). Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press.

Rice, G. T. (2018). Hitting Pause: 65 lecture breaks to refresh and reinforce learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Ruhl, K. L., Hughes, C. A., & Schloss, P. J. (1987). Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10(1), 14-18. doi:10.1177/088840648701000103

Russell, I. J., Hendricson, W. D., & Herbert, R. J. (1984). Effects of lecture information density on medical student achievement. J Med Educ, 59(11 Pt 1), 881-889.

Sztabnik, B. (2015). The eight minutes that matter most. Retrieved from