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.

However as instructors of any subject, time is not infinite. There are boundaries and limitations as to what we can do within the time we have, and also there is the requirement to deliver within those time frames.

So 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, where it can be easy to lose control of the lesson itself and spend too much or too little time on some subject matter.

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.

1. 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. If the choice is made not cover some material then your teaching become open to the risk of being incomplete.

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.

2. 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 (students) have been trained for abnormal and emergency situations that may arise as part of any 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.

The why and in many cases the ‘when’ (the conditions of skill application) is just as important as the skill being taught. Complex skills that get delivered too quickly are more than enough to confuse your class, but the presentations and teaching of skills without the explanation of when skills need to be applied is the type of thing that can render all training ineffective. The explanation of conditions is not only content that needs to be covered but also adds time to your delivery & to your course.

3. 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 and nomenclature?

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. A workaround for this can be found at the design and development of training material when the skill level of the student is taken into account.

4. 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 toward proficiency.

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? Gaining and keeping attention.

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.

This can sound incredibly short in the grand scheme of things. After all anyone can easily talk about training that is delivered for hours at a time. In fact its not uncommon for clients / students to tune out as little as 5 minutes into lesson delivery. Besides with attention being so easy to lose one can ask how we learn anything at all!

At this point it’s important to remember that the 20 minute clock is not simply what your students give you, in fact in many cases your students want to pay attention, but instead its millions of years of evolution that you’re up against. Quite simply unless the lesson relates to an urgent threat or your audiences survival, your class will want to zone out. In essence you can’t fight biology.

So how do we beat the 20 minute clock?

The answer here actually goes back just as far, and is most commonly exploited by Hollywood. Our lessons need to aim higher than the most ruthless parts of our croc (lizard) brain which simply want to ignore our message. As instructors this is where we need to present new information as an opportunity – something that our croc brains want to accept and pass up for further examination.

When you’re teaching high value lessons your students will already be consciously open to what you’re presenting so you (simply put) need to avoid triggering a threat response. If you can do this the hardest part of the teaching job is done.

Next comes complex content. Now complex content takes a lot of effort to process, and this is where you’re constantly in a high risk state.

Hollywood however is the master of gaining and keeping attention – and this is done through story. Cultivating training that is full of intrigue, curiosity & social grounding through the use of story is what can ‘short circuit’ the clock and keep students engaged for far longer.

When the subject matter is deeper and takes longer, story needs to be ‘weaved’ into training in order to gain and hold the audience while complex matter is delivered strategically in between in order to get teaching objectives delivered.

Audience engagement is another powerful tool that instructors can have to keep the audience on point. Once the audience becomes physically involved and is required to take action things rapidly swing into the favor of the instructor.

So how do we bust through the 20 minute barrier? Two key tools.

  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. This is how Hollywood keep you on the edge of your seat. There is intrigue and constant risk!
  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 throughout the skill development process.

In General a training lesson can be drawn out to 40 minutes relatively easily. The introduction of a lesson with a well constructed approach including the reason for learning, standard of achievement and revision will take a few minuets and get the audience involved.

A conclusion which confirms learning will also take some time leaving you with about 30-35 minutes to deal with the complex teaching outcomes. The use of story especially when answering questions works amazingly well because it not only gives an answer, but also gives a real world example that focuses on the clients mid brain, allowing the attention span to ‘reset.’ Adding in practice to specific skills which gets the client / student involved not only is useful for confirming learning of the skill itself but also puts the skill at the center of the students focus instead of having it constantly on the instructor.

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.

Now that I’ve taken some of your time … take a break. You can’t fight biology!

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#teaching #teachingforbusiness #learning #adultlearning

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