The Three-Minute Pause

images-95Take time to think it over

Time Out! In the midst of a frantically paced basketball game, a player signals a “T.” Or at a crucial juncture during a football contest, the coach wants the clock stopped to talk it over.

During athletic competitions, coaches and players need to periodically halt the proceedings so they can take stock of what is happening and plot necessary adjustments to be successful.

Classrooms can also benefit from a “pause” button. There are times during that ongoing flow of new information and ideas when students may need to signal “time out” so that they can collect their thoughts and reflect upon what they are learning.

Like athletes, they may need to “catch up” with what is going on, raise questions, clear up confusions, and set their minds for what will happen next.

Teaching/Learning Activities

Different variations of the Three Minute Pause activity can provide a structure for these reflective breaks during classroom learning. Experts recommend establishing a regular pattern of brief interruptions during class to allow students to process what they are learning. Here are the steps to be taken:

Step 1: You may wish to begin the concept of the Three Minute Pause with an analogy. Ask the students to imagine working all hour at the computer, perhaps writing a story or essay. At the end of the hour, the bell rings and they quickly stand and turn off the computer.

Many of your students will probably gasp, and ask incredulously: “Without saving?” Immediately you will hear how the whole hour’s worth of work is gone forever. Some students may even offer instances when they neglected to “save” and irrevocably lost work they had labored over and subsequently had to redo.

You might even recount personal instances when you were lax in saving and it dearly cost you. Computer manuals recommend that you save frequently as you work, every few minutes, so that unexpected problems do not wipe out your work.

Make the analogy to classroom learning. If you don’t pause every few minutes to think about what you are hearing, viewing, or reading, you are not “doing a save.” Some of the new information may make it to your memory banks for a limited period, but a lot of it will be heard, seen, or experienced, and then forgotten soon after.

By pausing every 10 or 15 minutes to think through new material, emphasize that you are in effect starting to “save” it in your minds.

Step 2: Establish that during a Three Minute Pause, students are engaged in three different modes of thinking. First, they try to summarize what they have learned. Second, they identify aspects that they find interesting or already know something about. And third, they raise questions about what is confusing or what they don’t quite understand.

For example, have each student identify a partner or “learning buddy” for the lesson (or perhaps for a longer period of time, such as a unit). For each pair, one student is designated as “Partner A” and the other “Partner B.”

When the teacher calls a Three Minute Pause, either A or B is assigned to summarize, question, and identify interesting information to his/her partner. Using a stop watch to time the pause can accentuate the urgency of the partner to move directly into the task in order to complete his/her duties within the allocated time frame.

A history teacher showing a film portraying the background of the civil rights movement might pause the film after 10 or 15 minutes. Student A may be asked to summarize key points and Student B may be called upon to comment on familiar material and to raise points of confusion. At the next break, these roles can be reversed. The teacher can decide to address questions or points of confusion during the pause time, or urge students to look for clarification as they continue watching.

Step 3: A more extended version of the pause activity is Think/Pair/Share (McTighe and Lyman, 1998). For this activity, students are first given a specific question or issue to consider. The activity begins with a short period of “wait time,” which allows students to ponder their thinking individually. Next, they discuss the topic in pairs.

Finally, they share their thoughts with the entire group as members of a class discussion. The students move from phase to phase of the process in response to cueing from the teacher.

In addition to merely discussing a question, students may also be asked to engage in other types of thinking. During the “pair” phase, the task could be reaching a consensus on an issue, problem solving, or assuming the role of “devil’s advocate” in order to argue an opposing position.

Step 4: In addition to oral interactions, the classroom pause can also be used for student reflective writing in their journals. These “learning log” entries can focus on summarizing, creating concept maps or graphic outlines of key ideas, relating the new materials to things the student has experienced, or targeting information that does not seem clearly understood yet.

Learning Log pauses should be distinguished from the normal notetaking that students may be doing while learning. Learning log entries represent their thinking about the material, not mere recording of information. Teachers frequently use reflective writing to begin a lesson or at the end of a period to pull ideas together.


The Three Minute Pause and its variations promote student learning in a number of respects:

  • Students are reminded that merely hearing, viewing, or reading is not enough; they must also stop periodically and think about what they are experiencing.
  • Students assist each other in constructing personal meanings of important content.
  • Students are asked to verbalize their learning both to others and to themselves.
  • These activities can be modified for students from elementary to secondary levels and are appropriate for all content disciplines.