The Power of the Pause: 5 Ways to Pause Class to Encourage Student Reflection and Increase Engagement


college teaching strategies how to engage students pausing
Here are 5 ways to pause class to encourage student reflection and increase student engagement. 

When you are leading a lecture or discussion that involves talking to your students for an extended period of time, they may be engaged, but at some point, their attention will drift - even if it’s just for a few minutes. Our brains need time to process new information and make connections to what we already know.

When new information keeps coming in too fast, students don’t have time to think. At best, they smile and nod and try to keep up by writing notes about what you’re saying so they can try to make sense of it later. Most likely though, they will start to feel overwhelmed and “check in and out” of the lecture.

If you continue talking “at” your students for an extended period of time just to “cover” the material, you’re not giving them the chance to make meaning and create connections. You’re not giving them time to process what’s been presented so they can move forward. That’s why pausing during your lecture can be so powerful.


Why Do Students Need To Pause and Reflect During Class?

  • Researchers have found that pausing for just 2-3 minutes during a lecture and giving students time to review their notes and/or share their notes with a peer can significantly increase short term memory and get that information into students’ long term memory (Ruhl, et al., 1987; Prince, 2004).

  • Prince (2004) summarized that the class that used the pausing procedure, “averaged 108 correct facts compared to 80 correct facts recalled in classes with straight lecture.” 

    Prince (2004) continued, “Test scores were 89.4 with the pause procedure compared to 80.9 without pause for one class, and 80.4 with the pause procedure compared to 72.6 with no pause in the other class.” (Prince, 2004).

  • By planning intentional 2-3 minute pauses during your lecture, not only will you help students stay focused and engaged, but you will also help them reflect on what they are learning, how they are learning it, and identify places where they are confused and need more guidance.

  • Pausing encourages students to slow down. Some students jump into a task or activity quickly (sometimes TOO quickly!). They work fast and often make mistakes because they are rushing to get started or finish early.

    Pausing helps students slow down, think about the task, and get organized before taking action or preparing to participate in the rest of the lecture/lab/class activity.

  • Pausing supports students who need more time to think and organize their ideas before they start an activity, answer a question, or engage in a class discussion.

    And, since the pause is time-limited, they can’t spend too much time thinking before they must take action or move ahead to the next part of the lecture.

  • Combining a formative assessment strategy (aka “Classroom Assessment Technique”) with the pause helps students identify what they know and where they are confused.

    Encourage students to ask questions after the pause so you can clarify their confusion before proceeding with new information. If you keep moving forward and they are already lost, then they’ll be confused and frustrated for the remainder of class.

What Can Students Do During the Pause?  5 Ways to Encourage Student Reflection and Engagement

1. Pause + 3 Answers

During the pause, ask students to write 3 possible answers to a question you plan to ask in the next part of the lecture. Show them the question on the screen, give them time to think about it and write their answers, and then proceed with the lecture.

When you get to that question, students will be prepared to share one of their answers (or ask a question if they are confused) since they’ve had time to think about it.

(Tip: If you ask the question and students sit quietly, combine this strategy with “think/pair/share” to encourage them to talk to a peer first, compare answers, and then share with the whole class.)

2. Pause + Review + Share

Pause in the middle of your lecture and give students 3-4 minutes to review their notes and share them with a peer. Sometimes students can help each other fill in the gaps in their notes and/or clarify confusion about a particular part of the lecture as they review their notes together.

If you have time, you can ask if there’s anything you need to revisit before proceeding with the rest of the lecture or class activity.

3. Pause + Retrieval Practice

One of the most powerful teaching strategies to help students retain what they’ve learned is to give them opportunities to use the information repeatedly throughout the semester.

This practice of retrieving prior knowledge, reviewing it again, and applying it to new situations helps students enhance their critical thinking skills as information moves from short term memory into long term memory.

During the pause, prompt your students to think about something they have already learned (or should have learned) in the course so far. It could be information presented last month, last week, or from the homework assignment the night before class.

They are not necessarily engaging with NEW information during this pause. Instead, they are reflecting on a concept or idea they have already been introduced to.

4. Start with a pause.

The pause strategy can be used anytime during class. Why not START class with a pause? Give students 2-3 minutes to gather their thoughts, sit quietly, and prepare their mind for the upcoming lesson. Encourage students to put away their technology tools for these few minutes and just focus on this class, at this time, in this moment.

Students are busy – they are often rushing from one class to the next, juggling courses, work, and childcare, or maybe coming from a class where they just struggled with an exam. Before jumping into the course material, give them (and you!) the space and time to breathe and focus right from the start.

5. Pause + prepare + prioritize.

Is an important deadline approaching? If your students have a major paper, project, or exam coming up, that’s the perfect time to add a pause to a lesson. During the class before the deadline, give students 2-3 minutes to prepare a list and prioritize what tasks they need to do between this lecture and the deadline.

For example, if the deadline for their final paper is the next class session, then maybe they need to: finalize references, double check formatting, re-read for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, create the cover page, etc.

Just giving students a few minutes to prepare and prioritize what needs to be done can help reduce stress and allow time for last minute questions (and hopefully prevent your inbox from overflowing the day before their papers are due!).

Concluding Thoughts

Pausing during class time can be a very powerful way to help students prepare to learn, review what they’ve already learned, and clarify their confusion so they don’t fall behind as the course proceeds.

Give this strategy a try. Mix things up. Try pausing in the middle of class this week and the end of class next week. Or start class with a pause during a stressful time of the semester.

Remember, every pause doesn’t have to be collaborative. Give students time to just think or work alone for a couple of minutes during class time. Planned pauses during class time encourages student reflection and engagement, and they also give you a little time to focus your energy and prepare to teach!

Recommended Resources:

Ruhl, K., C. Hughes, and P. Schloss (1987). Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education. Vol. 10, Winter. p. 14–18. 

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research.  p. 1-9. Journal of Engineering Education.