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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.


revisionspiral reboot!

balancing-stonesThis blog, the third iteration of revisionspiral, is devoted to “balancing” the demands and whims of being a professor at a teaching-focused institution. I used the scare quotes around “balancing,” but I might as well have also used them around a few other words in that sentence . . . it’s complicated! Let me explain.

Balancing. Some people think “balance” means giving equal attention to multiple things, while others conflate it with the concept of “everything in moderation.” My take is that things are in balance when you’re not collapsing from too much or not enough of anything (too many meetings or not enough sleep, for example), and the things you value–work, family, community-engagement, whatever–are all getting enough of your attention that you are not plagued by feelings of guilt.

Demands. This can be a tricky term with faculty, who I think, often confuse what they wish they could do or what their colleagues are doing with demands of their jobs. For example, I may have an over-achieving colleague who publishes three articles a year or a chair who is leaning on me to join a work-intensive committee, and I may feel a lot of pressure to publish more to keep up with the over-achieving colleague or to join the committee to placate my pushy chair, but the fact is, in this example, neither publishing more nor joining another committee are true demands of my position. I think one of the keys to “balance” is recognizing when something is really a demand of our job and when it is something else.

Professor. Adjunct instructor, lecturer, professor . . . there are lots of terms. Do you profess? In front of others who have paid for the privilege? Does an institution of higher learning issue you a paycheck for this activity? If you answered yes to these three question, you are who I’m talking about.

Teaching-focused institution. It seems like all institution presents itself to potential students as teaching-focused, but I’m talking about the institutions in which faculty are expected to put more energy into teaching than into research. The more might mean a tiny bit more or it might mean that the expectation is that all your energy goes to teaching.

Here are some of the topics I anticipate covering here:  

  • Making and defending time to research and write
  • Finding ways to integrate your teaching and research
  • Keeping email, meetings, and other tedium to a minimum so you can focus on more meaningful things
  • Noticing the differences between Demands and demands (capital D versus little d) so you can make deliberate decisions about how to focus your attention
  • Resisting the culture of academic elitism that often makes those of us at teaching-focused institutions feel defensive about what we do
  • Teaching strategies that promote social justice

About me

I teach writing theory and practice courses in the English department and direct the Writing Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Before joining the MSU Denver faculty in 2008, I taught at Red Rocks Community College for thirteen years.

In addition to teaching and directing the Writing Center at MSU Denver, I work with writers on all aspects of their writing processes. I enjoy working with groups of writers in a workshop setting and presenting to groups on subjects such as

  • overcoming Writer’s Block
  • using writing to improve your thinking
  • being a more productive writer
  • moving from draft to publication
  • tackling a large writing project, such as a dissertation, article, or book

I also work with teachers on teaching writing and teaching with writing, presenting and conducting workshops on topics such as

  • teaching with web 2.0
  • improving feedback to writers
  • using writing as a thinking tool as well as an assessment tool

You can see a list of recent presentations and workshops I’ve done here.

Contact me.