The Goldilocks Zone: Not Too Fast, Not Too Slow

Have you noticed time distorting while you’re working remotely during the pandemic? Somehow, time seems to be moving both much more slowly and much more quickly than usual. Combined with the unfamiliarity of teaching by Zoom, or by recording, this probably makes it even more difficult than usual to get the pacing right in our courses.

Many of us are already feeling behind. We’ve internalized a sense of how much we should cover by what point, and we’re hastening to keep up. Students, on the other hand, are often feeling lost and rushed; they wish we’d slow down. Many of us unconsciously talk faster when we’re talking to a screen, rather than a room full of baffled students. More importantly, most of us also lose our sense of the complexity of material we’ve been studying for decades, and we forget to give students enough time to process it.

If students say their professor is moving too fast, and she responds, “Actually, I’m behind,” it may be because she is feeling the tyranny of content. When faculty believe that their role is to “cover all of the material,” and there is more material than can be covered at a reasonable pace during one semester, rushing can seem like the only solution. It happens to the best of us.

When we rush through the material, though, we usually do so assuming that students learn whatever we utter in their presence. Of course, if we give it some thought, we realize that people don’t learn that way. Even if students do remember some of what we sped through, they may not be able to do anything with that knowledge. They need opportunities to develop intellectual and practical skills alongside the content or concepts. So racing through topics trying to cover them all does not result in much learning anyway. We have to view our role differently: It doesn’t matter so much what we cover; it matters what students learn.

When we think of our role as facilitating learning (instead of covering material), pacing becomes one of the central considerations in course design. We can ask ourselves: What is reasonable to expect students to know and know how to do by the end of the course? What is reasonable to expect them to learn and do each week? When teaching a remote or online course, it is helpful to break the course into modules that include content, assignments, and activities that students can work through in a given amount of time.

Sometimes academics can be intellectual hoarders, but moving at a learning-centered pace means that we cannot include everything, and we cannot emphasize everything. Prioritizing is essential. Not only because we need to determine what to focus on and what to leave out, but because we need to determine which complex topics and skills students most need our help with during class time, and what they might be able to learn on their own instead.

These questions of roles, priorities, pacing, and more are explored in some depth in the article “The Tyranny of Content: ‘Content Coverage’ as a Barrier to Evidence-Based Teaching Approaches and Ways to Overcome It” by Peterson et al. The authors propose “a three-step process that will help faculty switch from a default teaching goal of covering content to a learner-centered approach focused on core concepts and competencies that students need to learn.” We encourage you to check it out, and let us know what you think.

Pacing is something faculty need to think about on macro and micro levels in our teaching, from the feasibility of the proposed outcomes of a sequence of courses, to the timing of individual in-class activities. Sometimes not rushing students comes down to simple tools and strategies, like using a timer to give them the full amount of time you promised them to solve a problem, or pausing part way through a lesson to give them time to process what they’ve heard. The big (and even the small) decisions about pacing don’t all have to be made in isolation. If several instructors teach the same course, or sequence of courses, it can be useful to meet and discuss the various factors that affect pacing, and ultimately students’ ability to learn and succeed. It is useful to get feedback from students about pacing, too, through a mid-semester evaluation or other, more informal methods.

We’re also happy to meet with you to discuss the pacing of your course. You can contact us at or sign up for a faculty reading group here. We look forward to working with you!