There is very little in the literature about the scheduling and pacing of teaching, which is not surprising, because:
- It is something over which we often have little control: we are likely to be stuck with a timetable governed by all kinds of factors, such as staff and room availability, which are much more clear-cut, and
- time is something teachers fight over: there rarely seems to be enough time to "cover the syllabus" and
judging how long something is going to take (with this group of students etc.) is a high-level and rather inexact skill. You may know how long it will take to teach, but how long will it take for an acceptable proportion of these students to learn?
So scheduling and pacing (the speed at which topics are tackled and the relative amounts of time devoted to them) receive much less attention than they deserve. The following notes represent what appears to me to be a broad consensus of experienced teachers about their preferences:
Scheduling of sessions
- Put lectures (if you have them) and intellectual activities in the morning: put practicals after lunch. There tends to be a dip in people's ability to concentrate between 2 and 4pm: they need the extra stimulation of activity.
- If you have the choice, teach intellectually demanding and academic topics on a "drip-drip" basis: relatively short sessions with time between for reading and perhaps exercises.
- Practicals clearly demand more time, if only because of the need to complete experiments, and the investment of time needed for setting up equipment. Apart from this, however, practical inter-personal activities, such as training for interviewing or counselling, benefit from an "immersion" approach. A great deal can be lost between sessions, so better one whole day than an hour a week for six weeks. The group needs time to work through its developmental cycle.
- Consider planning your schedule on a "working backwards from the end" basis. The big learning pay-offs often come in the last 15% of the session or the sequence (assuming you have not lost your learners — physically or mentally — by then), but they may well be diminished if you are having to rush to catch up with yourself.
- If necessary, include "slippage" time in your sequence. An almost guaranteed way to lose your students is not to be prepared to answer their questions or follow their arguments because you are pressured to keep to an inviolable schedule. Prioritise your taught material so that you know what you may be prepared to drop in the interests of capitalising on an opportunistic moment.
- Plan the whole sequence in advance: but re-visit each session before you actually teach it, and modify in the light of the experience of the previous sessions.
Scheduling within sessions
- "Advance organisers": these may be outlining handouts, statements of objectives, introductory orienting remarks or a variety of other techniques. They give the students confidence that you know where you are going, as well as helping them to get a handle on the session — and to register that something new is coming when they have switched off. Everyone, no matter how motivated, switches off some of the time.
- Change the pace at least every 15-20 minutes. Exercises which really engage the learner can go on longer than this, but under no circumstances that I can think of should you rabbit on for more than 10 minutes at a time. [This is called giving hostages to fortune, when my students read this!]
- Even so, remember the ending. The shape of a teaching session is similar to that of most other task-related conversations, from selling to counselling: note that this operates at a number of scales, from the minute-to-minute presentation/incorporation of each new idea, to the month-to-month, even year-to-year, scale of a whole programme
The Opening is about setting the scene, establishing the rules, and introducing the topic
The Middle expands on the topic, in this case referring both back to previous material, and probably forward to later material, in order to place it in context
Then it is important to get Closure, so that students have something relatively clear and manageable to take away — even if that is a question, rather than the teacher's answer.