All In Good Time: The Effectiveness of Timed Instruction

All In Good Time: The Effectiveness of Timed Instruction

If you've ever wished for “just five more minutes” before getting out of bed in the morning, you know firsthand that a seemingly insignificant amount of time can sometimes be immensely valuable. So, why not translate the same “every minute counts” mentality to classroom activities?

Make sure time is on your side

As cited by columnist Jay Matthews in a 2019 piece for The Washington Post, author and teacher-trainer Doug Lemov believes countdown clocks and other timers can help immerse students in what they are learning. Lemov first identified the trend of timed instruction while researching his highly successful “Teach Like A Champion” book, a process that involved recording and subsequently studying videos of the best teachers he knew. As Lemov explained in the book, timed instruction involves teachers breaking lessons into “highly specific increments … [with] an allotted time for each activity” and using “frequent countdowns to pace their class in completing tasks and emphasize the importance of each second: ‘Pencils down and eyes on me in 5-4-3-2-1.’” According to Lemov, this tactic has proven itself to be an effective way of injecting a sense of urgency into the proceedings by “reminding students that time matters and hastening them along to the next step.” 

Countdowns also offer an opportunity to positively recognize students for following instructions and keeping their eyes on the ball. “If you acknowledge them in the middle of a countdown (for example, by saying: ‘5, 4 … Brooklyn’s ready! ... 3, 2 ... Brian’s sitting up and ready to roll! ... and 1’), you are calling attention to behavior that not only meets but exceeds expectations,” Lehman wrote. Moreover, the potential to earn this sort of personalized attention can add layers of student excitement and satisfaction that are typically much harder to incorporate into an untimed task.

Gather your tools

Once you decide to implement timed lessons, the next step is to evaluate and select from the various tools at your disposal. These may range from the more traditional egg timers and hourglasses to online countdown websites and smartphone apps, although taking the high-tech route might be preferable. After all, unless you have access to a sand timer large enough to be clearly viewed from the back of the classroom, projecting a computer screen onto the wall or ceiling is likely the easiest way to ensure every student is in the loop. 

In addition to encouraging timekeeping autonomy, countdowns that can be viewed throughout the classroom also present an opportunity for interaction. For instance, teachers may engage students at random by asking how much time is left or appoint specific individuals to let everyone know when a certain milestone is reached (e.g., when there is one minute remaining). Indeed, as a spokeswoman for 96 IDEA public charter schools told the Post, “The vast majority of our classrooms have big red timers attached to the whiteboard at the front of the classroom with a magnet.”

Optimize your approach

With your chosen tools in hand, it's time to get started! Here are some tips from the Center for the Collaborative Classroom on when and how to the technology of time for instructors and students alike:

  • Student transitions: The use of timers doesn’t need to be limited to lessons alone! As the Collaborative Circle blog phrased it, students have a propensity to “stretch out transitions”—for example, cleaning up from one activity and getting ready for the next, or packing up and getting in line to leave the classroom—so why not expedite the proceedings? 

  • Breakout sessions: Students aren't the only ones who may forget to check the clock. Indeed, it can be all too easy for teachers to get caught up in listening to a great conversation during a breakout session, only to realize that groups who already finished the activity have begun to lose focus. As well as keeping teachers on track, the sound of a timer's alarm can help quiet down the class, which may reduce teacher stress by lessening the need for repeated callouts.

  • Teacher talk: According to the Collaborative Circle blog, “Being aware of how much teacher talk is going on is crucial to creating a student-centered classroom. Even if your message is the most interesting and entertaining lecture you have ever given, it is not the same as active student work.” With this in mind, teachers who are eager to increase the value of their lessons by maximizing hands-on, peer-to-peer interaction can start by keeping an eye on the clock. As in any public-speaking situation, being as clear and concise as possible is key—especially when there is a room full of students to keep on track.

As detailed above, teachers can deploy numerous methods to achieve the ideal lesson pace, from setting alarms to assigning student timekeepers. Beyond simply ensuring all necessary topics are covered during a class period, timed instruction is a useful way to cultivate engagement and encourage a different kind of student participation.

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