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While knowing that students lose their focus on lecture after twenty minutes, due to the inefficiency of moving between classes every twenty minutes, universities timetable lectures for an hour up to even three hours. Nevertheless, e-learning has made it more practical.

This has been completely explained in the following two publications:

Kinchin, I. M. (2016). Visualizing powerful knowledge to develop the expert student: A knowledge structures perspective on teaching and learning at university. Springer:

Many curriculum structures within universities have long historical origins and are bound up with issues such as internal politics and research funding as much as they are to do with any underpinning pedagogical claims. However, that is not to say that they cannot evolve and outgrow some of the more dated and restrictive practices that have helped to shape them. For example, that universities still tend to timetable lectures for about an hour even though we ‘know’ that students will typically only concentrate for about twenty minutes of that hour is a practical outcome of the logistical impracticality of moving in and out of classes every twenty minutes.

O'Flaherty, J., & Phillips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. The Internet and Higher Education, 25, 85-95.

I was wondering if there is any experimental evidence that having breaks every 20 minutes in classes is not practical, or it is just a common belief and no one has ever tried it?

UPDATE:

This thread answers many concerns mentioned in the comments.

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    I have hardly ever had a lecture there where was no break at all in an hour or even more. While the time table stated 90min, there were multiple small breaks, e.g. when the professor wiped the boards, prepared something for a demonstration, etc. So regarding your question: Having breaks of 2-3min is completely practical and also rather common from what I know. – Dirk Aug 17 '17 at 11:34
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    Could you point to a source that makes the claim about students losing focus after 20 minutes? Because that sounds like an awfully short attention span. – Tobias Kildetoft Aug 17 '17 at 11:46
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    I will point out the quotation marks around 'know' in your quote. The direct implication of those marks is that, in fact, we do not know this well at all. Further, it likely is very dependent on the individual student. – Jon Custer Aug 17 '17 at 13:17
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    @TobiasKildetoft: "most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_span). I agree that the 20 minute figure is something I've seen reported time and time again (and I've structured all my lectures around that understanding). – Daniel R. Collins Aug 17 '17 at 13:50
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    @DanielR.Collins The citation for that claim on wikipedia seems somewhat doubtful. The figure also goes against most of my experience with university students (and even more so faculty), but then again, those will probably be a sample with a better than average attention span. – Tobias Kildetoft Aug 17 '17 at 17:17
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The closest thing I know of to taking a break every 20 minutes that is based on any research is the Pomodoro technique developed by Francesco Cirillo. The purpose of using this technique was to break any task into intervals of normally 25 minutes. A timer is set and after the 25 minutes, you would take a short 3-5 minute break. The idea was that the mind can only focus for so long before it needs at least a brief rest.

Taking a short 3-4 minute break every 25 minutes during a lecture seems reasonable. However, it requires the teacher to be aware of principles found in cognitive science or to use common sense as they see their students struggle to stay focused and awake.

  • Thank you for your response. Would you please provide us with some references to the "principles found in cognitive science" that you mentioned? Note that I've already cited the following Pomodoro paper in my comments above. But it does not really provide us with the theories that we are looking for: caps.ucsd.edu/Downloads/tx_forms/koch/pomodoro_handouts/… – user2521204 Aug 17 '17 at 21:04

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