How long should a lesson be?

It not usually something that you think about when you’re preparing lessons but an important factor regarding training outcomes, is How long should a lesson be? The other perspective is how long can a lesson take to deliver properly?

I said previously that training is expensive, and more often than not you may not have the time you need to do a subject justice. The chances are there will be external factors that dictate how much freedom, time and space you’re going to have when it comes to delivering training. When those external factors become too restrictive, as an instructor it’s our job to push back and demand more resources to get the job done right . . . otherwise you may as well not do it at all.

But how much do we ask for? How much time do we need?

There is no magic formula to figure out how long a lesson is going to be, and its easy to get caught out during delivery. Some subjects can sometimes end up being delivered much quicker than anticipated, and other times some subjects can end up taking up far more time than you think. So why does this happen? There are 4 main factors that determine how long a lesson ‘ends’ up.

Skills have different Demands

There are skills that simply take more time to explain and then to practice. The list of multi-stage, multi-step and conditional procedures and practices are endless, but when it comes to teaching any one of these procedures, you have to explain each and every step.

Whereas there are other skills that don’t take much time at all to explain and practice. Especially when there is no follow up skill, training can be prepared and delivered on the spot.

How deep do you need to go?

I wrote about training for emergency and abnormal situations just recently and this was all about making sure that as an instructor your clients have been trained for abnormal and emergency situations that may arise as part of a skill or competency.

Tip of the Iceberg — Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS
Much of any skill is hidden during practice.

That evolved into exercise and scenario based training which prepares clients for those ‘out of the norm’ situations. But there is also another element to this.

In the day and age of ‘The App’ which more often than not will do everything for you, there are going to be times where you may need to dive deeper into subject matter than just which setting the client needs to make use of. You may need to explain and teach how and why things are as they are.

Skill Level of the student

This is a massive factor. . . Who are you teaching and where are they at when you start? Are they conversant in the subject you’re teaching or are they seeing it for the first time, when you start talking in industry specific language?

This is where new students will either allow a lesson to be delivered in under half the time you need, or they will take twice the time for each teaching point. Qualifying students prior to starting a program is an absolute must, not just because of how much time you may or may not have, but also for the sake of other students.

The limit of what you can achieve.

It is important to remember that as an instructor there is a limit to what you can achieve during instruction. You can only ever achieve competence in a client who is learning a skill before they inevitably must go out on their own and gain their own experience.

Otherwise you will fall into the trap of diminishing returns. You can spend a tremendous amount of time with your client teaching, but then fail to give your client experience which they so desperately need. There is also the issue of what that time use does for your business model.

So how long should a lesson be?

How long should your lesson be?

There isn’t a hard & fast answer to this one. Some lessons are shorter and delivered on an ad-hoc basis, while other lessons need far more time; hours are not out of the question.

However the answer is all about how long you can maintain the attention of your clients. The general rule of thumb is that your client is going to start losing the attention battle after about 20 minutes.

Shorter lessons can obviously be delivered well inside the 20 minute attention span limit with ease as long as you don’t invite your clients mind to wander. Within the 20 minute barrier you can spend the majority of your time working with theoretical content, not only because you can maintain attention for 20 minutes but also there usually won’t be time to conduct a complete set of practice stages. (Taught during Lesson Development & Delivery)

“… but my subject needs more than 20 minutes …” I hear you say in obvious disbelief.

This is where your instructional skills are needed. At about 20 minutes the chemistry in your clients brain is signaling them to ignore you, you’re going to need to alter your approach. Beyond 20 minutes, you’re going to have to look at introducing practice to your training—simply just to keep them involved as well as to correctly develop and assess skills.

But what if there was a way to bust through the 20 minute barrier? What if science is wrong here? There are two ways.

  1. Create Emotional Engagement with the use of story. When told properly a story presents real characters each with a goal and the conflict to push through to get there. the conflict and struggle is what we naturally gravitate towards and once we are emotionally engaged, our attention spans extend significantly. But once the emotional engagement drops, the clock starts ticking again.
  2. The second is to get the audience involved. This is where the time required to practice skills needs to be set aside or other ways of engaging the audience are needed. Workshops … work for this reason due to the high amount of audience engagement albeit at significantly reduced teaching/learning.

Long story short—there isn’t a golden time, but remember if you can’t teach your lesson within 20 minutes, you’re going to have to make sure that you have some way to engage your audience further to make sure that your training is effective.


Ready to get your audiences attention? Teaching for Profit – Core Starting Skills will teach you the two most powerful teaching skills you can possibly learn.

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