Long Block Classes: Keeping Students Engaged

Long-block courses are composed of class sessions that last upwards of three hours and can sometimes occur two or three times a week. Summer courses often use these extended class periods. Though meeting for longer periods of time allows for the possibility of a deeper exploration into a topic, long classes can mean that students (and the instructor!) become tired and disengaged. Below are some tips on how to keep students engaged and actively learning throughout long-block courses.

Strategy 1: Balance Planning and Flexibility

Effective syllabi ensure that students know what to expect for each class by providing detailed schedules (See resource on “Teaching in a Compressed Time Frame” for more information about effective syllabus design). Schedules promote class time to be used most effectively, which will decrease the in-the-moment burden on the instructor and guarantee that multiple and varied effective teaching activities are used throughout the class.

However, the syllabi and schedule you design can be open to change and student input as the course progresses if you create a living document, thus giving students a sense of control over their own learning experiences. Investment in their own learning can help students continue to be engaged throughout extended periods of instruction (see here for resources on designing Learner-Centered Syllabi).

Strategy 2: Vary the Activities

As a student or educator, paying full attention to a class of 90 minutes, not to mention the longer class periods typical of summer term, is difficult. Many seasoned teachers and professors recommend at least one complete break from activity within each 3-hour class period. As former BU Associate Professor Matt Marx recommends in a Lightning Talk with BU Digital Learning and Innovation, this can be done by sectioning a course into 90-minute time blocks comprised of 75 minutes of material and 15 minutes of break (you can learn more about Dr. Marx’s recommendations in this Lightning Talk). However, the exact material-to-rest breakdown you decide to implement may vary with the material you’re trying to cover during that class period or in the course overall.

Incorporating different activities, with pedagogical explanations of the different activities’ goals, helps to create the illusion of a break and displaces feelings of monotony throughout a long class period. This strategy may feel daunting to instructors because of the prospect of coming up with and designing lots of activities, but there are plenty of resources online that can be restructured for any subject (see Table 1 in Kimberly D. Tanner’s 2017 article on teaching strategies for some examples).

Strategy 3: Encourage Student Interaction

Instead of solely teacher-to-student learning, you can incorporate student-to-student learning (or peer-mentoring), which is beneficial for the mentor and the mentee. Additionally, diversifying the types of learning (independent practice problems, group work and peer-mentoring, discussions, etc.) increases the likelihood that all students with diverse preferences for learning, background knowledge, and perspective will be able to engage with a subject.

Let your students share their preferences about how to structure group activities with polls, and don’t be afraid to poll multiple times throughout the class.

In conclusion, whatever day-to-day schedule you create for your long-block course, implementing breaks, varying activities, and diversifying the learning interactions will help you and your students digest the material, refresh when needed, and be better prepared to be engaged during the entire block of time.

We’ve included here some examples of schedules for effective and engaging teaching to be used for 3-hour and 8-hour courses.


Contributed by Maria Valadez Ingersoll, Ph.D. candidate in Cellular and Molecular Biology, College of Arts & Sciences, Boston University and a Graduate Assistant with the Center for Teaching & Learning, 2022-23. 

Last updated April 23, 2024