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How to pace lessons in the classroom

Rachel BasingerOctober 30, 2018

Child writing in his notebook in class

Have you ever gotten to the end of the school year only to realize you weren’t able to cover everything you had originally planned? As teachers, we often face the challenge of effectively managing classroom time and lesson pacing. You don’t want to go too fast or too slow, and you also want to keep everyone engaged. Those are certainly tricky needs to balance.

But it is possible! Here are a few tricks of the trade that I’ve picked up from my four and a half years of teaching.

5 lesson structure and pacing ideas for your classroom

students working on a geography assignment with a globe on a desk

1. Begin with the end in mind

If I could choose only one piece of advice to give about managing classroom time, it would be this. Too often, students write papers not knowing what exactly they’re trying to say — and similarly, too many teachers plan lessons without knowing what concrete goals they want to hit by the end of the semester.

At the beginning of every year, I ask myself, “What do I want my students to be able to do at the end of the year?” And then I work backward, designing my lessons deliberately to help them actually reach this goal. It’s definitely easier to just plod on ahead without any sense of direction, but it’s much better to have a clear view of the end in mind.

For example, when I taught in Virginia, my seniors had to write a 20-page thesis by the end of the year. During my first year of teaching, I didn’t do much planning for the end of the semester. Of course, I gave students concrete deadlines, suggestions, and edits, but I just blindly assumed that they would steadily work on the thesis throughout the year. That didn’t exactly happen, and at the end, I realized that they should’ve gotten a lot more guidance.

So for future classes, I started working backward. First, I figured out when I wanted the final draft to be due, and then I came up with a schedule for deadlines. I also started having my students submit small sections of their thesis papers beginning in December. That way, by the time April rolled around, they were mostly focused on editing as opposed to writing. Planning the semester with the end in mind made a huge difference in the quality of these assignments because it helped students stay on track and minimized procrastination.

2. Plan ahead

I’m very meticulous and organized, but not everyone is. Don’t worry, though — I’m not here to preach! In fact, one of my coworkers (and closest friends) is almost exactly my opposite: She always has her lesson plans done on time, but I’m more like five weeks ahead. Even so, we both accomplish the same thing. Why? Because we plan ahead.

I find it helpful to write everything out. I get ahead in my lesson plans, which I can adjust as needed based on the amount of material I cover. I also jot down lots of notes in my daily calendar about upcoming events, the material I want to cover, ideas, and so forth to keep my plan always in the forefront of my mind.

My coworker can do all of this mentally. She may not have everything written down, she knows what exactly she wants to communicate to her students. So when she has an unexpected illness and is out for the day, she can give the substitute teacher a detailed outline of what she wants to accomplish because she’s planned ahead.

Instead of thinking about your immediate lesson plans, try planning ahead several weeks (or even months). You’ll find that this initial effort will pay off because you’ll have more time in class to cover what’s most important.

3. Reevaluate your plans monthly

Although it takes time, it’s worthwhile to reconsider your plans at the end of every month. Reflect on what you accomplished that month, how it compares to where you were in previous years, and if the pace you’re following works well for the class. And then adjust as necessary!

In my personal experience, each class and school varies widely. One year at my first school, I read copious amounts of ancient literature with ninth graders. We got through Gilgamesh, Hesiod’s Theogony, The Iliad, Odyssey, the Theban Trilogy, Phaedo, Crito, Euthyphro, Apology, Till We Have Faces, Julius Caesar, and Book I of Aristotle’s Ethics. Yeah, that’s a lot of reading.

Fortunately, the students were eager to learn and were very studious. The next year, I didn’t get through quite as much reading material, as we just needed to spend additional time really understanding all of the works that we did end up covering. And that’s okay! You shouldn’t expect every year to be the same.

As a teacher, you may find it frustrating to see yourself “behind” where you were last year, but always remember the needs of your class — some students simply need to devote more time to learning certain material than others.

With this change in perspective and frequent re-evaluation of your lesson plans, you’ll be well on your way to having a successful semester.

4. Be accountable to someone else

One of the most helpful things that my head teacher did at my first school was to give us a self-evaluation packet to fill out. At first, I was skeptical because it seemed like additional work, but by the end of the year, I appreciated being accountable to someone else. I was able to manage class time and lesson pacing better because I had to be honest about my progress with my superiors.

In the middle of the year, during a completely random month, my head teacher asked us to add a paper to the packet before our personal teacher evaluation meeting. We were supposed to state what we had covered thus far, where this matched up with our original plans, and if we were ahead, behind, or on track. This took me about fifteen minutes to complete, and it was extremely helpful to make a chart for myself about the status of my classroom.

If your principal doesn’t require a packet with a chart like this, consider making one for your own benefit and maybe showing it to a colleague or the head of your department. Just taking the time to fill out a chart and being honest with someone else will likely set you up for great success for the rest of the school year.

5. Categorize your notes

When you prepare for each day’s lesson, try to somehow mark three different categories of material in the lesson: 1) what you MUST cover, 2) what you WANT to cover, and 3) what you think would be fun or interesting to cover.

The first category includes all material that is essential for students to know. I like to star this information in my lecture notes so that I know to emphasize it when we get there. For example, I taught about the rise of Islam yesterday, and one piece of material I considered essential for students to know was the five pillars of Islam.

The second category is material that would be good for students to know. If you’re teaching Beowulf, you might want to go into some detail about Grendel’s mother, describing what kind of demon she is and drawing a picture of her on the board. Students might find this sort of visual activity helpful in bringing the characters to life. But if you don’t have time, it’s okay that you just discuss the episode of Beowulf versus Grendel’s mother without making elaborate illustrations or going into great detail.

The final category is any material that students may find interesting. This may help contextualize what students learn or supplement the core lessons, and it’s likely going to consist of random facts that you can sprinkle throughout your lecture or discussion if there’s time. But it’s not going to be the end of the world if you don’t mention that the only known surviving manuscript of Beowulf was singed along the edges in a fire in the 1700s. It’s definitely intriguing and may encourage students who find the information interesting to explore it on their own, but you can certainly do without mentioning it.

By organizing your notes in this way, you can ensure that the essentials are covered while keeping things interesting and staying on track. If time runs out, you ’ll be able to move on, knowing that whatever you skipped was relatively unimportant information.

Transform your classroom, one tip at a time

It can be hard to always stay on track and not get behind with lessons, especially if you’re teaching a class that progresses a little slower. But it is possible if you follow even one of these tips. By actively evaluating the state of your classroom, you’ll find yourself on track and prepared to tackle any subject and any class!

Photo credit: klimkinsobima /

Classroom Management