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Pacing: The Key To Learner Engagement

· Education,training,How To Guides

You may have heard the phrase “Those who can do, do. Those who can’t do, teach.”

Every time I hear it I get riled up because it implies that anyone with subject knowledge can teach effectively. It completely glosses over the fact that teaching, training, coaching and mentoring are all arts within themselves that take many years to practice and perfect. What is particularly interesting about teaching and training is the number of subtle skills that would go un-noticed to an amateur, and the one I want to focus on here is pacing.

Broadly speaking, pacing is about speed and flow. It can be about the physical speed of the session in terms of how much content you are covering in a particular time. It can be about the intellectual pace – the learning curve over the session. But it is also about energy levels and mood in the room. All in all, it’s about taking the learners on a journey that is right for them.

If things are too slow, unchallenging or the energy levels are too low then you risk boredom, feeling patronised, lethargy and ultimately disengagement from the learning.

If the material is too fast, the delivery is too quick or the group is overly excitable then there’s a chance you overwhelm students, leave people behind or miss key details. Again this can lead to disengagement and confusion.

Finding the right pace is a crucial soft skill that takes more than knowledge of your subject. It is about having such a rapport with your students that you know what they have already learned and what their next steps are, you have a keen sense of what mood they are in and you have the flexibility to adjust your session in response to feedback – often not even verbal feedback but the vibe of the room.

Students complete a physical activity to change pace and raise energy levels through competition

Flexible Sessions

In my mind, flexibility is one of the most important qualities of an excellent educator. When I completed my teacher training, I always remember my tutor giving me the following advice:

“The plan is what you do when all else fails.”

It really stuck with me because what it means is; people are unpredictable. Your plan may well be the starting point of your session but if a productive but unplanned discussion takes place – follow it to its conclusion. If it turns out students already know what your are trying to teach them, scrap the lesson and move on to applying that skill/knowledge or learning the next step. If they are struggling and have gaps in their knowledge then go back and fill those in. The worst thing a teacher can do is dogmatically stick to a plan just because that is what is written down. That’s how you end up with disengagement and a fragmented feeling session.

Planning for Pace Changes

Pacing can be seen as the underlying rhythm or energy of a session. If the rhythm stays the same all the way through you have a high chance of losing people. A one hour lecture can be just as off putting as a full hour of an activity based task. The trick is to plan short bursts of different learning activities so that there are changes to the pace. This prevents students becoming tired at any one method and helps to keep them engaged for longer.

This may look like: lecture input, paired discussion, Q&A, practical task, whole group discussion to feedback, final lecture input.

In this way, the same hour of learning can feel like a good piece of music – with different verses and rhythms but all related to the same underlying pulse. Periods of excitability may be used to break up the moments of intense focus or challenging learning.

Record in different ways to vary the types of learning in the environment.

Top Tips for Changing Pace

Pace doesn’t mean that a session has to be consistently upbeat and energetic. In fact, doing this will turn off the more introverted and thoughtful learners. Changing pace regularly is important to keep things fresh. Carrying out activities in different formats can also be a helpful way to change pace. Here are some suggestions for altering the pace of your sessions:

  • Break up chunks of input with mini discussions. Get learners to chat for 1-2 minutes in pairs about what they have just learned. It may be that you have a specific question in mind, that you want them to summarise or even for them to formulate their own question. This creates a sudden burst of noise (and energy) in the room as well as ensures all learners have something to say if/when you want to hear feedback.
  • Break up independent tasks with peer learning moments. Half way through a lengthy task you could have a check in where people partner up and read / see each others progress so far and give each other feedback, ask questions or share ideas. This can be done with movement if you feel people have been sat for too long.
  • Use carousels to mix up periods of activity. A carousel usually means having 3/6 separate activities happening simultaneously in a room. Each group starts on one activity and then moves around the room, allowing them to work for a short amount of time on each. This introduces movement and noise to the room. It can sometimes be better than having the whole group complete the activities at the same time in consecutive order as there are more likely to be differing experiences, less resources required and more opportunities for the group to feedback their experience – as they did not see what / how other groups approached their task.
  • Illustrate or apply concepts and knowledge through interactive games. This will very much depend on the learning objectives, but finding a physical game to play can really help inject energy into a situation. This is especially good for problem solving and team based learning.
  • Have a bank of warm ups and cool downs ready. Though they may not be directly related to the session learning, taking 5 minutes to play a game can actually be very valuable if it restores the energy levels of the group. Warm up games inject energy into the room, wake people up and help them shake off the lethargy they are feeling. Cool downs help them calm from an excitable or nerve wracking activity and prepare them for a more focussed activity.
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