August 5, 2016

As a new semester approaches, and demands on your time grow exponentially as classes commence, it's important to exert some sense of control over the chaos that ensues. The best way to do that is to utilize teaching time savers - 8 of which are highlighted here - that may not just save some time, but add value to teaching and learning as well. Work smarter, not necessarily longer...

1. More time spent preparing for class may equal diminishing returns. You spent a couple hours preparing a very good lecture and set of in-class activities, maybe even a lab demonstration. If a couple hours yielded a very good outcome, it stands to reason that a few more hours would yield an even more excellent outcome, right? Not necessarily. In Robert Boice’s book Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), he points out that too much preparation time is actually a problem for many faculty members, especially new(er) faculty who tend to obsess over the preparation of every detail of a class session. Too often, this hyper-focus on details and completeness ends up as a mass of content coverage with little pedagogical insight to generate student learning. Read more about this and some helpful guidelines to follow regarding course preparation time management in an excellent Tomorrow’s Professor blog post.

2. Draft learning outcomes so you aren’t tempted to cover everything on a topic in a course, or unit, or class session - that would be both impossible and a waste of time. Use the learning outcomes you have generated to look over any lecture or lesson plan and ask yourself what fits in moving students towards that outcome, and what may not directly fit. Use this simple method to scope the focus of any class from the session to course levels. (I know it’s hard to not cover that book or article or topic which is your absolute favorite of all-time, but if it’s not well-aligned with the actual focus of the course, students will not appreciate it and find it distracting more than anything else - even if they like it, too.)

3. Trust yourself and the value you bring as a scholar in the discipline. One of the best ways to reduce the stress and burden of too much class prep time is to utilize methods of formative assessment to “check-in” with students’ understanding or misunderstanding of a given topic or concept to determine what needs the most coverage in class, and what is understood well and can be glossed over quickly. Not all teaching needs to be pre-planned. If you know your topic well, allow yourself to be flexible and adaptable to meet students where they are and change focus as needed in the moment. You may not do this every day, but sporadically intermixed through the course can be very positive for student learning, informative to your pedagogy, and save a lot of prep time.

4. Automate feedback and commenting. You know those student papers you assigned? It was a great idea when planning the course - an ideal way to let students demonstrate what they know by also practicing their burgeoning writing skills in the discipline. But now it’s time to grade, and give feedback. While a bad idea to even consider automating all feedback to the point where instructor actual presence is lost, automating some feedback can be very helpful for the students and save you time. Do you find yourself giving the same feedback to multiple students every semester? Do you find yourself giving some feedback over and over that is more about the technical aspects of writing versus the content and development of thought? If so, try developing a library of resources on these common topics and instead of typing out why the thesis statement is a poor one, for example, provide a link to the resources or tips you’ve curated that will help students understand and improve. For examples and resources on how to do this, review “Responding to Student Writing Using Cloud-Based Microlessons.”

5. Share the responsibility of feedback with students. Another way to both save time and improve student learning is to engage student peers in giving one another feedback on work and performance in class. The planning takes time, but the execution can be a huge time saver if done well - through reduced amount of feedback you need to offer throughout the course, and through more polished final products submitted to you for review. We all know it’s a lot easier and quicker to grade and evaluate superior versus shoddy work. For an example of how to leverage sharing the responsibility, review the blog article “Peer Evaluation of Class Participation.”

6. Grade efficiently and effectively. This includes consideration of grading policies, assignment design, rubric development, and use of technology tools to assist grade calculations. For some detailed suggestions within each category, review this helpful resource on Grading Efficiently from Berkeley’s own GSI Teaching and Resource Center.

7. Few aspects of teaching could be considered more draining of time than handling subjective grade disputes. That’s why this one get’s mentioned as part of tip #6 and again here. By spending a little bit of time up front as you plan, and early in a course, you can save inordinate amounts of time later. Make sure to provide students with clear expectations for assignments, including grading criteria. Be clear with students about what you are willing to discuss related to grades (e.g., grade calculation errors are welcome for discussion/review - whether this solution should be worth 4 or 4.5 points is not). For more tips and advice in this area, review my blog piece on “Four Ways to Prevent Grade Disputes: A Time Machine Quiz.”

8. Put the onus on students (especially in large enrollment courses, or from previously taught courses) to help you write letters of recommendation. Faculty colleagues have generated several ways to prompt students to provide helpful information that will both give adequate time for letter-writing, as well as expedite the process itself from overall organization of many letters to write, to completing each individually. Here are a few examples to draw from in coming up with your own timesaver.

  • Keith Feldman (Ethnic Studies) developed a Google Form to cope with the deluge of letter requests. “What I like is that it automatically generates a sheet that I can search, sort, and annotate as necessary. I also get notified when a student submits a new request. It’s not a solution for managing all the pertinent documents (CV, writing samples, statements of purpose, etc), but it’s a start.”
  • Leslea Hlusko (Integrative Biology) details for students who is able to, and how to, request a letter of recommendation on her website.
  • Martha Olney (Economics) replies to students solicitation for a letter of recommendation with the following stipulations. “I will need: 1) your transcript (unofficial is ok); 2) your resume; 3) an essay by you: why you want to do this; 4) whatever forms I need to fill out; and 5) a photo of you (jpg is fine) that I can keep in my files; it helps with the name-face connection over time. You can mail all the materials as an attachment or mail them via postal mail to my office.”