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Reducing time spent on teaching prep

clockfaceReducing the time you spend on teaching prep frees up time to put toward other things, like research or writing or family or whatever. Tonya Boza observes

I have been teaching at the university level for over a decade, and have learned that there is not a direct relationship between the numbers of hours you spend preparing for class and the quality of the class. Instead, after you reach a certain threshold, you receive greatly diminishing returns on your time investment into teaching. In fact, if you spend too much time preparing for class, it may end up not going so well because you have way too much information to share with students, and they (and you) end up feeling overwhelmed.

She then goes on to offer several “tips” for spending less time on teaching prep, my favorite of which is to lecture less. This tip in particular illustrates one of the most important benefits of spending less time on teaching prep: it often results in better teaching. Students generally learn more when they are interacting with the material, actively engaging with it, rather than sitting passively, listening to a lecture. Maryellen Weimer reviews some of the evidence that engaging students in activities is more effective as a teaching strategy than lecturing.

Recently, I participated in a webinar on reducing teaching prep time by Chavella Pittman. Pittman advocates that faculty schedule their teaching prep for 1-2 hours immediately before class; this is a surefire way to make sure you don’t spend too much time prepping. I usually schedule my office hours immediately before class, so I do most of my prep in the hour or so before my office hours start. I’ve also found that during class, while students are involved in group work, I can usually start sketching out the next class meeting.

One strategy I used to use quite a bit but don’t much anymore is having students, either individually or in pairs, facilitate discussions of readings. On paper, this looks like a great strategy and I have many colleagues who rely on the strategy and report good results. I have no doubt that it works really well for some faculty, but in my experience, the only way to ensure that the student-led discussions really get into the meat of a complex reading is to meet ahead of time with the student discussion leaders and spend as much or more time prepping them to lead the discussion. When I haven’t done this, the student-led discussion often turns into a lecture, and as I already said, lecture isn’t the greatest way for students to learn–whether it’s students doing the lecture or the instructor doing it. (I’m talking about undergraduate students–graduate students, particularly those with some teaching experience themselves, can probably handle discussion facilitation.)

This fall, I am going to try something new for me to start discussions. About ten minutes before class, I am going to hang several pieces of flipchart paper around the room, each with a different question about the reading, such as “which aspect of the argument did you find most challenging?” and “if the author could be here with us today, what would you ask her?” As students arrive, I’ll give them big post it notes to write their responses on and then stick on the appropriate flipchart page. I can then use the responses myself to facilitate discussion or divide the class into groups and have each group facilitate a discussion around the responses on one of the flipchart pages.

Here is the teaching prep routine I am going to work with this fall for each class meeting:

  1. Identify 2-3 learning goals for the class session.
  2. Review the assigned reading with those learning goals in mind, which will help me focus on what is important to “cover” about the readings.
  3. Come up with questions about the readings that support those learning goals to go on the flipchart paper.
  4. Figure out which content I need to lecture on. Check to see if there are any good videos, TED Talks, or visuals on the interwebs to integrate.
  5. Decide what kind of activity will be the main activity of the class meeting (I don’t want every class to feature the same activity), such as small group discussion, large group discussion, think-pair-share, freewrite and then share, roleplay, debate.




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