Applying the Pausing Principle to University Classes

By Katie Frei* and Megan Imundo

*Katie Frei is a third-year undergraduate at UCLA working in the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab.

Many universities use large class sizes for at least some of their courses. UCLA, for example, hosts core classes that can house as many as 400 students. Lectures of this size can be plagued by distractions, such as other students talking or using their phones (McAndrew et al., 2018). These distractions can negatively impact learning. In addition, large lecture courses present challenges for instructors who want active student engagement, as it may be easier for students to sit in the back of the lecture hall and avoid participation. There are also more students per teaching assistant or professor in large classes, and so students may be less connected with sufficient academic help from professors or TAs. Lecture pauses are one technique that instructors can utilize to address these challenges that can be created by large class sizes.

Di Vesta and Smith (1979) investigated whether brief pauses during lectures increased comprehension and long-term learning of undergraduates enrolled in an introductory psychology course. Brief pauses were either placed prelecture, post-lecture, or throughout the lecture. During the pauses, students either reviewed the material individually, discussed the material as a group, or completed puzzles (control). Students took a test on this material immediately following the lecture, and also two weeks later.

Group discussion during brief pauses throughout the lecture led to the best short-term comprehension and long-term learning. The researchers suggested that these peer discussions allowed students to more efficiently learn the lecture material in smaller chunks by reviewing and rehearsing the information with their peers. This style of pausing also facilitated active engagement. In combination, these effects improved overall learning. 

Lecture pauses can easily be implemented by faculty at universities. In fact, some professors have already begun to incorporate interspersed peer discussions with clicker questions. Clicker questions are a form of practice testing in which students are presented with a question and have to “click in” with their answer. Professors who couple clicker questions with group discussion throughout lectures can increase student engagement (Landrum, 2015). This structure not only allows for students to take a break and talk to each other during lecture, but this form of practice testing can also enhance memory (Bjork, 1975).

New virtual classrooms can also incorporate the pausing principle. Breakout rooms over Zoom are one way professors can create lecture pauses. They allow professors to divide students into smaller sessions for closer peer discussion of course content. The use of breakout rooms for peer discussion is an easy method to foster student engagement and learning during virtual instruction.


Bjork, R. A. (1975). Retrieval as a memory modifier: An interpretation of negative recency and related phenomena. In R. L. Solso (Ed.), Information processing and cognition: The Loyola Symposium (pp. 123–144). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 

Di Vesta, F.J., Smith, D.A. (1979). The pausing principle: Increasing the efficiency of memory for ongoing events. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4, 288–296.

Landrum, R. E. (2015). Teacher-ready research review: Clickers. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, 250–254. doi:10.1037/stl0000031

McAndrew, A., Dykeman, T., Fell, C., & Nussbaum, B. (2018). Unpacking the Student Experience in Large Lectures. Retrieved from: