Brain Research–Are Your Lessons the Correct Length for Your Students' Brain Development?


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You may have experienced it: You thought a lesson went splendidly, only to realize later that the majority of your class has no recollection of what you taught. Or perhaps you are delivering a lesson with the energy, polish, and props of the highest-paid actress when mid-lesson you look up to see that the majority of your class appears to not be paying attention. Both of these scenarios have described my teaching.

Fortunately, we have a plethora of high-quality brain research to support our work, providing guidelines about the appropriate length of a lesson for the age of students we teach. Knowing how the brain works helps us realize that the resources we use often include lessons that are too long for our students. When teaching a lesson, be it in a whole group, small group, or individual conference, we want to keep in mind what Dr. Ken Wesson taught us at a conference. He was the first person we encountered who made the direct correlation between children’s ages and the effect of lesson length on their ability to process and retain information presented during direct instruction. It was Wesson who originally taught us this rule of thumb: the average number of years children are in age equals the average number of minutes they can maintain attention and understanding during direct instruction.

Several books on brain research and brain-compatible learning have been published since we first heard Wesson speak. In his book Brain Rules, John Medina (2009) discusses the fact that the brain has a stubborn timing pattern of 10. After about 10 minutes of direct instruction, the brain must make a shift to refocus.

We cannot ignore the implications of these types of studies. If we do, we must know the ramifications of lessons that run longer than 10 minutes: we are not being the most effective with our instructional time, because the ability to retain information is greatly decreased. That said, what happens when the lessons are still going too long? Simply, if a lesson is going too long, it means we are trying to teach too much.

Next time you are planning for or teaching a lesson, consider the number of teaching points. If it is more than one or two, convert that single lesson into more than one. You will find that your students are more successful and there’s a much better chance that the content will stick. 

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