The 12-Minute Classroom Rule at The University of Michigan

Lecturing for 90 minutes, no matter how much you channel Dead Poets Society, just doesn’t work.

The 12-minute rule, however, is magic. 

The kind of magic that comes from a deep understanding of human cognition and psychology.

Dr. John Branch, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, joined the podcast to discuss the 12-minute rule he uses in his classrooms to maximize student engagement.

First-Principles Course Design

John’s career as an educator started out much like many of ours. Just out of his master’s program, he was handed some slides from last year’s professor and told to jump into the classroom.

“I did that the first year, and I was dissatisfied with my teaching performance, but more importantly I was dissatisfied with the learning experience which the students were having,” John said.

“From that point forward I decided that I would start with first principles, and by first principles I mean getting to the root of what the course is all about,” he added.

  • What is the genesis of the course?
  • Why are students meant to be there? 
  • What are the specific learning objectives? 
  • What is the learning theory undergirding the classroom and classroom activities? 

“Those are the first principles which I take very seriously when I’m designing a course,” John said.

He also starts a course with an activity he calls a “failure quiz,” designed to show students that they have a knowledge gap.

This idea hails from the learning theory, constructivism. “The consequence of that adoption of that particular theory is that students must recognize what their existing knowledge is,” John said.

The failure quiz helps students realize what their extant knowledge is, which in turn becomes the base on which they build the knew knowledge.

The 12-Minute Rule

As hard as it is to admit, human beings have cognitive limitations. Specifically, we are limited in our ability to focus and stay focused.

“Most people can focus on a given task for only about 12 minutes,” John said.

“The consequence of that cognitive limitation for us, as higher ed instructors, is that we ought to be thinking of our classroom as a series of 12-minute activities rather than a one and a half hour or a three hour lecture,” he added.

From that moment on, John viewed each of his course sessions as a sequence of shorter activities. He didn’t have two hours with students–he had ten 12-minute activities with them.

Class time isn’t one big chunk but rather a sequence of shorter activities. That’s all there is to the 12-minute rule, but it’s a game-changer.

“As a professor, as an instructor in the classroom, you are essentially a curator of activities,” John said.

Making the Time for Strategic Course Design

“I want to be the best professor possible. I want my students to have the best learning experiences possible, so I always start with a blank sheet of paper,” John said.

John’s blank-sheet-of-paper course design is partly inspired by ECTS–the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System.

ECTS essentially created a template for course design by assigning learning hours to every single activity, thereby making it easier for students to transfer credits between international schools.

The North American notion is that for every hour in the classroom, students spend about three hours outside of the classroom. “ECTS turns that on its head and actually suggests that what we ought to be measuring is learning hours,” John said.

Whenever he sits down to design a course, he begins by determining how many learning hours this course will be and what the learning objectives are. 

“Then I start to allocate those learning hours across different learning activities. Sometimes those learning activities are in the classroom, sometimes not,” he said.

He encourages everyone who has ever been handed last year’s professor’s slides (thus, everyone) to take a look at ECTS.

“This system doesn’t take very long to get accustomed to it, but it provides this very useful tool for mapping out a course by allocating learning hours across the different learning activities,” he said.


This post is based on a podcast with Dr. John Branch. To hear this episode, and many more like it, subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen here.

Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.