Thursday, March 28, 2013

How To Avoid Spending All of Your Time Teaching: Seven Tips for Efficient Teaching

Do you spend all of your time teaching?

For all professors, teaching is an important part of our job. However, for most professors, it is not the only important part of what we do. Most of us have other obligations and we risk putting those in jeopardy when we spend all of our time preparing for class and grading.

Me - teaching - in my first year on the tenure-track!

In a recent post, I explained that I spend about six hours a week preparing for each class I teach. As a caveat, I will say that number is a guesstimate, and the number of hours varies depending on the class.

When I teach a graduate-level seminar, I usually have to spend about four hours reading the book I assigned, another two hours taking notes on it, and another hour writing out discussion questions and reading students’ responses. In graduate seminars, I usually spend about five to ten minutes at the beginning of the class laying out the importance of the book to the field and then we spend the rest of the class engaging in discussion. Typically, I ask one student to lead class discussion each week.

When I teach an undergraduate class, the weekly readings usually only take me two hours or less, and I spend more time on grading and preparing PowerPoint slides. For undergraduate classes, I usually spend about 15 minutes of an hour-long class lecturing, and use the rest of the time for discussion and in-class activities.

I have been teaching university for about a decade, and usually teach classes on race, immigration, and sociological writing.

Here are a seven tips to avoid spending all of your time teaching.

Tip #1: Try to minimize new course preps.
Your ability to do this will vary by institution, but many administrators will find your suggestion that you teach no more than one new prep a year reasonable. Personally, I find one new course prep a year just enough to keep things interesting.

Tip #2: Teach classes as closely related to your research as possible.
If your research is on race, offer to teach a graduate seminar on race. When choosing the books, choose those texts you are grappling with in your own work. A graduate seminar should have the classics, of course, but students also need to be familiar with cutting-edge work in your field, and they will benefit immensely with hearing you talk about how you are engaging new ideas in your own work.

For undergraduate teaching, you also often can select readings that are closely related to your own work, and sometimes even pilot your own books or articles in class.

Tip #3: Keep lectures to a minimum.
I hope that all of your classes are not 300-student lectures – where lecturing may be the only option. However, if you have 60 students or less in the room, you should be able to engage students in discussion. For a 50-minute class, I usually lecture for about ten to fifteen minutes. I use this time to make it clear to students what topics they need to be paying attention to and what I hope to accomplish during the class period. Then, I move into discussion and group activities.

Tip #4: Find the schedule that works best for you and ask for it.
Some departments and universities are more flexible about scheduling than others. Knowing what teaching times are best for you is the first step towards getting an ideal teaching time. When works best for you?

In my first job, I was given a teaching schedule of 8am to 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I taught at those times for the first year, and then asked to change. Over time, I have realized that the ideal teaching time for me is in the afternoon and that I prefer to teach my classes in three-hour blocks. Thus, I ask for this schedule, and, thus far, have been able to make a case for it.

Tip #5: Set aside specific times for class preparation and stick to them.
This semester, I am fortunate to have only one class that I teach on Wednesday afternoons. I read for class on Monday and Tuesday evenings. I prepare my PowerPoint slides from 10am to noon on Wednesdays, and finalize my notes and grade short papers between 2pm and 3pm when class starts. I use Thursday office hours to respond to student inquiries and to deal with other things related to teaching. Since I know I have time set aside for each of these activities, I rarely think about class outside of those times.

Tip #6: Engage the students in discussion from the first day of class.
As I said above, I rarely lecture, and when I do, my lectures are short. Once I have finished conveying information to students, I ask them a series of questions. My class preparation thus involves preparing a short lecture, and then preparing a list of questions to ask students. I go through the questions, asking them one by one. Sometimes it becomes clear that I need to clarify certain points, so I may move back into a brief lecture. Other times students may take class in a direction I had not anticipated, so I try and bring them around. Either way, a discussion-based class is more engaging and requires less preparation than preparing and practicing an hour-long lecture.

Tip #7: Use rubrics for grading.
Grading is another area that can be very field-specific. However, most fields allow for the use of rubrics to grade papers. I assign two five-page papers in each of my 45-student undergraduate classes, and use rubrics to grade them. The rubrics are straightforward and allow me to communicate effectively with students what points they are getting and what points they are missing. That way, I do not have to write extensive comments on their papers.

In fact, unless you are a language teacher, you should not line-edit your students’ work. And, even if you are a language teacher, this guide explains that you should only line-edit the first 20 percent and then let students do the rest of the editing themselves.

There you have it – my seven tips for being a more efficient teacher.

Although readers have often asked for this post, I have waited a long time to write it, in part because it seems a bit taboo to suggest that we try and minimize the amount of time we spend teaching. We are professors after all! On the other hand, I should say that I consistently get very high teaching evaluations and students regularly communicate to me that they learn a lot in my classes. On my most recent set of student evaluations, my teaching scores were an average of 6.7 out of 7. Student evaluations are only one measure of teaching success – but I thought I would share that with you as further evidence that you do not have to spend 40 hours each week preparing for one class for that class to be successful.

I recognize that these tips may be best suited to someone in a situation similar to mine – teaching in the social sciences at a large public institution. However, I imagine that any professor would find at least some of these suggestions helpful.

Let me know what works for you in your quest to be an effective and efficient teacher.