The 20 Minute Change Up: Revisiting a Classic Approach

Back in graduate school I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a Graduate Teaching Fellow. This program aimed at training a graduate student in a given department to be a trainer and resource for other graduate students who may want to develop their teaching abilities outside of the open view of their more research-oriented advisors.  I spent a summer in training, learning how to conduct peer evaluations, train teachers, and just in general learning good pedagogical principles.

I was reflecting on that experience recently, and remembered one of the articles I read then that made a big difference on how I approached teaching. It is one I shared widely with my fellow graduate students at the time. It is a simple but powerful idea, a cornerstone of the active learning approach, that is a great starting point for new teachers, and a good reminder for those of us that have been teaching for awhile: the 20 minute change up.

Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish (1996) note that studies of attention spans show that  lapses occur every 15-20 minutes.  Students simply have trouble focusing on a presentation for a longer period.  They therefore recommend changing things up every 20 minutes by introducing some kind of active component.  This can be as simple as posing a question to the classroom, showing a video, having students engage in think-pair-share, or generate exam questions based on the material.  The original article actually lists more than two dozen different techniques of changing things up.  Certainly, games and simulations fall into these categories as well, but those require more time and investment on the part of the instructor (and frequently, the students).  The Change Up ideas are all small ways to incorporate active learning principles into your classes immediately.


Leave a Reply