Lecture structure

Lecture structure

  • Break every 20 min
  • Chain knowledge between sections
  • Manage the cognitive load


Having a good lecture structure becomes more important in an online setting in which students are by themselves without their peers to support and motivate them, and where you cannot easily gauge how students are going because you cannot see them.


  • Build in regular breaks. Aim for a break every 20 minutes. This is the optimal length of time for people to concentrate on listening to a speaker.
  • Choose appropriate places for breaks – e.g. at the end of sections, or when the cognitive load has been very high.
  • The breaks do not need to be coffee breaks. Thirty seconds to a minute is sufficient. Ask the students a question that gets them moving (type in an answer, or select an icon). Make an announcement. Tell a mathematician’s biography. Ask the students to do a quick problem.
  • These breaks help to manage cognitive load.
  • Minimise the number of breaks in which students have time to walk away from the computer. Every time that a student walks away from the computer, there is a temptation not to come back. Unless you have a three-hour lecture in which you need walk-around breaks, break, but keep the students engaged online.

Best practice structure

A best practice umbrella structure for lectures triggers prior knowledge, provides many hooks for the day’s knowledge to stick to, and chains the knowledge together so that students more easily recall it.

  1. Big picture
  2. Where today’s material fits into the big picture
  3. Review of last lecture
  4. How today’s material follows on
  5. Today’s material
  6. Review of today’s material
  7. How today’s material fits into the big picture
  8. Preview of tomorrow’s lecture
  • The big picture provides students with a framework within which to put the new learning. This makes it easier for them to learn the content, and to link it to other learning that they already have.
  • The review and the preview chain the knowledge, which strengthens links between the new content, which makes it easier to access, and helps learners develop deeper understanding. It also contextualizes the new content.
  • The review also consolidates previously taught material.
  • The preview and review don’t need to take more than a minute or two each, unless there is a good reason to extend them (e.g. the first lecture on a new topic). An outline slide or a diagram can be sufficient to illustrate the big picture and where today’s content fits in.
  • You can place announcements and any other content wherever you like.
  • Short anecdotes about the history of the mathematics or a very brief biography of a relevant mathematician can provide a human dimension to your lectures that some students respond well to.