Tuition: Are there benefits to longer lessons?

At Ivy Education, we are often asked how long tuition sessions should be, and we know that getting the lesson length right can have a significant impact on a student's progress. In this Expert Insight, we present our findings on optimal lesson length, based on reviewing numerous case studies and consulting our Senior Tutors on what they have found works best.

Are there benefits to longer lessons?

Put simply: yes. Though the traditional hour has held sway for decades, research conducted into lesson length has repeatedly shown that there are significant benefits to longer sessions. Increasing lesson length allows more time for effective learning, consolidation of new knowledge and can facilitate a stronger learning relationship between a tutor and their tutee. We consulted Ivy Senior Tutor, Sandip, on his experience of longer tuition sessions:

"A longer session enables the tutor to break up the content into sections, which I have found provides students with enough breathing space to understand new methods, content, or techniques without it feeling rushed. For me, the optimum structure has been two 40-minute sessions split by a 10-minute break. This provides students with more time to ask questions, go over any areas of concern and ample opportunity to demonstrate their understanding. Overall, I have found that increasing instruction time improves a student's ability to absorb new information and knowledge."

Teachers and tutors alike acknowledge the importance of ‘settling’ a student in at the beginning of a session, to ensure they are primed for learning. This alone takes an average of four to eight minutes, thus reducing the time tutors are able to spend recapping the previous session, introducing new content, consolidating and applying new knowledge, and explaining any homework assignments. Dr David Sousa’s examination of human learning and retention suggests that having extra time for a warm-up and an introduction of aims at the start, followed by an effective review at the end, may be key to maximising how much a student remembers from the session.

A longer lesson also ensures that all new ideas and knowledge can be explored in greater depth. This helps the student quickly move from familiarising themselves with the content, to mastering it. They will have every opportunity to raise any questions about underlying theory or to request alternate explanations when something doesn’t quite click the first time around. Educator Joseph Carroll is one of a significant number of researchers who believe the evidence in favour of longer learning periods (which he refers to as ‘macroclasses’) is so compelling, it merits completely redesigning school systems.

What are the considerations?

Understandably, there are some who raise concerns about a student's ability to focus for extended periods of time. This may be particularly acute for very young children, or those who are easily distracted. However, the evidence, and the experiences of our own tutors, suggests the opposite. One tutor who recently began using longer lessons (of about 1 hour 30 minutes) for Key Stage 2 students has been impressed with the children’s ability to ‘maintain focus and engagement for that entire period’. Another valuable option, which our tutors have found works especially well for online tuition, is to plan a longer lesson with a brief break halfway through, to ensure the student retains their focus and concentration.

If a child is already struggling or disinterested in a particular subject, parents may wish to consider extending the length of a lesson to address this. In fact, evidence suggests that longer sessions are of even more benefit to struggling students. Both a PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) study and a PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) reported study found that grades improved significantly with an increase in lesson length, and that the biggest improvements were made by students who previously had more difficulties than their peers. The PISA study actually suggested that, for teenage students, lessons of an hour and 20 minutes were optimal.

Ivy’s Recommendations

For younger students (3-7 years old) we recommend lessons of 60-80 minutes in length. For specialised 7+ preparation, our tutors have particular success working with children in 2 x 45-minute sessions, with a break in between. These double sessions can help younger children get in the habit of settling more quickly into ‘learning mode’ as well as actually lengthening the amount of time they can focus for – which is great preparation for the exams and their future.

For middle years students (8-14 years old) we recommend lessons of 80-90 minutes, or 2 x 60 minute lessons with a break. As learning starts to become more complex, these longer lesson times ensure the session is ideally paced for the student, with no risk of any superficial learning flying under the radar.

For older students (15+ years old) we recommend lessons of 90-120 minutes. At this stage, it is essential that students have the opportunity to really examine topics in depth with their tutor. Studies have shown that longer lessons are particularly effective for science and essay-based subjects. This can be an especially helpful option to those applying for places at top universities, and also prepares them for the academic rigour to come.

We hope you have found our in-depth exploration of lesson length useful. If you are considering tuition for yourself or your child, please don’t hesitate to contact our team today. We will be more than happy to arrange tuition for you with a tutor ideally matched to your needs – and to recommend the best frequency and session length according to your academic goals!