Notes on Teaching Efficiently

Robert Runté, Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge *
 

Last Revised: January, 2008.
 
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Work/Life Balance

This site provides suggestions on how to manage or reduce the workload associated with one's teaching responsibilities, and is intended primarily for beginning instructors at the post-secondary level.

Although successful teaching requires passion and commitment, due consideration needs to be given to placing limits on how much time and energy may be devoted to teaching. Otherwise, tenure-track candidates risk focusing on the immediate and continuing demands of teaching to the detriment of their research program, or succumb to a workaholism that threatens their family relationships, health, and well being.

  Similarly, academic teaching staff (i.e., non-tenure track faculty without research responsibilities) must avoid burnout by ensuring that they too are strategic in approaching their teaching responsibilities. There can be no output without input, so establishing an appropriate work/life balance is vital for long-range sustainability. This site suggests ways to work smarter, not harder, in becoming a successful university or college instructor.

 

Keeping Course Design Manageable

DO NOT volunteer to develop more new courses than absolutely necessary

          Each new course requires an inordinate amount of time to prepare

          Each course in one's repertoire requires a significant investment to keep up to date; the more courses in one's repertoire the more time must be devoted to teaching preparation (or the more thinly the time allocated for teaching preparation is going to be spread)

          The more courses in one's teaching rotation, the longer it takes to refine each course to achieve a quality product and peak efficiency

          The more courses one takes on, the more likely some course topics will fall outside one's core expertise; courses not directly connected to one's own research require extra reading and effort to develop and maintain; peak efficiency is achieved when reading for class overlaps with one's research reading

          Wherever possible, teach multiple sections of the same course in a term rather then take on several different courses; three courses require three preparations, but three sections of the same course require only one prep.

 

DO NOT reinvent the wheel

          Build on the course outlines, custom learning resources (i.e., readers), text choices, and lesson plans of predecessors and willing colleagues – even if one rejects 85% of their approach, starting from something and building on it (or reacting against it) is significantly faster than starting from scratch (Naturally, one must be prepared to reciprocate by providing corresponding access to any materials one develops.)

          Base initial design around an acceptable text, supplementing the design with one's own ideas, readings, and research; assign a different text for students. This provides an alternative viewpoint and eliminates the redundancy of students reading material one intends to deliver in class.

          Use Google Advanced search (the "format" button) to locate relevant PowerPoint slides or presentations; adapt and incorporate into one's own, giving credit for content/images in 8 point type (so as not to distract students from slide content) in lower right hand corner of slide; track detailed source information in slide notes for future reference.

          Where applicable, use Google image, Flickr, Photobucket etc., to locate relevant images; use Google Video, YouTube or Videojug to locate relevant videos; where feasible, make producing such videos for uploading to YouTube or Videojug a class project or group assignment to increase resource base

          Always take a few minutes to debrief yourself immediately after each class, recording any problems or inspirations for next time: record interesting student questions, input, and examples to incorporate in future versions of the course; keep track of timings so that future classes do not end mid-concept; keep track of test and assignment results so that assessments may be better focused next time. Such simple debriefing can significantly reduce future prep time and enhance course quality. Word-process everything so that revisions and updates may be made with a minimum of fuss.

          Incorporate one's own research/reading into class whenever appropriate: students appreciate hearing from the cutting edge; and time devoted to research also serves as class preparation

 

DO make full use of course outlines

          Set out as much information as possible in the course outline – the extra planning required will be more than offset by the very significant savings in dealing with students throughout the term. See Getting the Most of Out Course Outlines

 

DO make everything count twice: recycle teaching as research

          Repackage effective lessons as in-service workshops, public lectures, or conference presentations; (and recycle successful workshops, public lectures and conference presentations as class lectures)

          Repackage effective courses as text books, CDs, web modules, or other published products

          Write up any innovative course design, teaching technique, etc., for both the teaching journal related to one's field and/or the journal devoted to that technique (e.g., if experimenting with web-based assignment in a sociology course, submit to The Sociology Teacher, and Instructional Technology). Present at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference.

 

Keeping Class Instruction Manageable

 

DO develop explicit lesson plans

All lesson plans should include the following key information so that they may be picked up and used 10 minutes before class, even years after initially written.1


ED FDN 4391                                Lesson 06              Stakeholder Analysis              page #

(course number, lesson #, topic, and page # on each page for easy reference; let's you grab the right lesson!)

Last revised:                                  Jan 5, 2007  check whether most recent version; whether needs updating

 

OBJECTIVES:                             2.           Place contemporary professional issues within their correct

                                                                         historical, social, economic, political or philosophical contexts.

                                                          3.             Examine the unexamined assumptions upon which

                                                                             current practice, proposed reforms, and various

                                                                          controversies within education are premised.

(list lesson objective to remind yourself what the purpose/focus of the lesson was: numbered references are from course goals/topics listed in course outline;)

MATERIALS:                               video: Market Place Episode "Download This"; discussion question sheets; flip charts, markers

(a checklist of all materials required for that day's class: overheads; class handouts; maps, charts, or other visual aids; videos; lab equipment; PowerPoint slides; and so on – tells you at a glance what is needed before leaving office for class)

ASSIGNMENT DUE:                term paper proposals due this class

                                (a checklist of anything to be collected from students today)

READING DUE:                         Chapter 8 in Wotherspoon text due today

                                                     (list of readings students were to have prepared for today)

NEXT ASSIGNMENT              Class presentation

                                                    (assignment to be announced this class, either for first time or as a reminder)

NEXT READING:                      Chapter 9 in Wotherspoon; chapter 1 in Class Warfare

(similarly, assigned readings to be announced in class – always remind students of readings in class, even when clearly listed in course outline.)

RESOURCES:                              Wotherspoon chpt8, Class Warfare chapter 1, appendix 4,

                                                               2001 paper by Livingstone, the old Henderson text, the study I did in '06

(list source material for lesson content – checks how dated material is, allows for quick fact checking if students ask something one needs to look up, and eliminates time wasting search for citations when one eventually gets around to writing one's own textbook for the course.

==============================================================

Divide header from body with a line.
 
Use body of lesson for speaker notes; include sufficient detail as needed to remember lesson following year (e.g., don't put "tell story from the news yesterday" because you won't remember what that refers to two years from now when next called on to teach this course.). Debrief after each class to incorporate revisions that occur to you as a result of current class, in preparation for next year....

 

Introduction

Last time we talked about X and Y.  In today's class I'd like to extend that discussion by talking about Z, and would like to make three basic arguments:

point #1

point #2

point #3

(Use the introduction to reconnect students to previous lesson/material; or do something to capture student attention/ enthusiasm; or start by asking if there are any questions left from last time or from the readings; then state what today's lesson is about.)

 

Topic #1: Stakeholder Analysis in marketing.

(and so on, with the rest of the lesson.

When using PowerPoint or other teaching aids, some instructors find it useful to note where particular slides, videos, etc. fall within the lesson plan. Of course, it is important to avoid reading out from either the slides or the lesson plan itself! )

 

Conclusion

Thus it can be seen that arguments 1 and 2 fail the analysis and only point 3 can be considered valid using this methodology.

 

It's nice when the lesson is brought to some sort of conclusion, rather than just stops because the period has ended. However, timing is often difficult to gage and is usually the last aspect of teaching to fall into place. Always have next class' lesson plan prepared and on hand in case usable time remains in the period; alternatively, some instructors include an optional "sponge" activity in their lesson plan – an optional extra activity flexible enough to use up any extra time should there be any, but expendable if the class runs over.

 

 

DO post office hours

          Consistently restrict student access to official office hours; otherwise students will come to assume 24/7 access, continually interrupting and preventing one from completing other work

          Schedule office hours at 8AM to cut down on frivolous visits; schedule hours on days from different class schedules (e.g., Monday and Tuesday, rather than the same class time slots on Monday and Wednesday) to increase probability that students will not have other classes during one's scheduled office hours. Where (and only where) students can demonstrate that they have classes during those hours, allow them to book an appointment at another specified time.

          Extended hours may be provided during peak periods, such as just before major assignments are due, or just after they have been returned. 

          Calculate reasonable office hours by dividing 40 hour work week by % of time to be devoted to teaching, research, and service; divide teaching time into class time (fixed), preparation (usually 1/1 for class time), marking (will vary depending whether multiple choice, essay or other), and advising; limit total office hours to % available to advising, and distribute over the semester

          Student phone calls and email should be accepted and replied to only during official office hours; state in the course outline that "every attempt will be made to return calls and emails within three working days"; otherwise students will expect instantaneous turnaround, email access on evenings and weekends, and may be encouraged to email frivolous requests. (Pedagogically, 24/7 access is unsound because it encourages dependence rather than developing student independence.) Urge colleagues to adopt consistent email access policy across department so students recognize that this as the norm.

 

 

DO delegate reception duties to support staff or Entourage

          Where faculty resources allow, direct students to turn in/pick up assignments through receptionists rather than to one's office; otherwise a stream of well meaning students will constantly interrupt one's concentration on other work as each pauses briefly to chat.

          Alternatively, some instructors find it convenient to accept assignments by email or WebCT assignment box –the assignments come in date stamped, feedback can be provided through Word comment function ("Track Changes" under "Tools" menu), and returned to students by email without the potential distraction of a constant stream of students coming to one's office.

          Train students to include the course number in email subject line; program Entourage ("Rules" under "Tools" menu) to automatically route all course-related email to course mail folder, where it can wait until office hours. This also eliminates danger of student emails being overlooked in the flood of other email one typically receives each day.

 

DO NOT volunteer to teach overload or extra summer courses

          After taxes, overload/summer classes generally do not pay well enough to be worthwhile – such projects should only be undertaken if they provide professional development; e.g., teaching on another campus, or developing a new course one needs on one's CV. Time spent repeatedly re-teaching the same course on overload could be more profitably invested in writing a textbook (more cash in long term and another line on one's CV), or developing one's research, or having a life.

 

 

 Keeping Evaluation Manageable

DO use multiple-choice tests in large classes one expects to teach again

          Many instructors deny themselves the convenience of multiple-choice (mc) tests because they believe mc questions are inherently inappropriate to their discipline, or that multiple-choice can only test rote memorization. This is not the case. For most knowledge objectives, well-constructed mc questions are generally more valid and reliable measures of student achievement than essay questions; and when properly constructed, can test the highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy. Practically every course has some knowledge component for which mc testing would be appropriate. To the extent that one can measure that portion of the course with mc tests, one should include them (though 'best practice' would arguably include more than just mc items). For instruction on how to construct better mc tests or to test higher level thinking, see http://www.uleth.ca/edu/runte/tests/multiplechoicetests.html.

          Multiple-choice tests are easy to grade, but time consuming to write well, so are best suited to large classes one expects to teach for several years; for small classes one is only going to teach once or twice, essay tests are more efficient.

          The hours required to develop good mc questions can be amortized over several test administrations by reusing the questions over several years.  Therefore, do not allow question booklets to leave the room.2

          Use item analysis (see http://www.uleth.ca/edu/runte/tests/itemanalysis.html) to improve questions in one's test bank over time and to compile tests tailor-made to each class each term.

          Writing two or three multiple-choice questions for each class as it is taught automatically generates a 25 or 50 item mc test by the end of the semester, and automatically ensures a representative sample of course material.  (Choosing what to test for each class also serves as a quick check on the relevance of the day's content; i.e., if you cannot think of a question to ask today, why are you teaching this?)

 

 

DO develop clear rubrics for evaluation of written response tests and assignments

          Time required for essay marking can be considerably reduced through the use of explicit and specific rubrics. (See "developing scoring rubrics" at http://www.uleth.ca/edu/runte/tests/essaytests.html.)     In some subjects, a single rubric can be applied to all written assignments; this greatly increases both speed and reliability of grading (as the marker internalizes the rubric through repeated use).

          Given sufficiently clear scoring schemes one may delegate marking responsibilities to assistants, reducing one's own marking time to the role of "court of appeals".

 

 

DO restrict marker comments to useful feedback

          Many instructors waste time circling every typo, spelling mistake, grammatical error, and formatting violation in a student's paper; this is not only a waste of valuable marking time, but the resulting sea of red ink is both prejudicial to objective evaluation of other aspects of the paper, and over-whelmingly demoralizing to students. Choose instead a single page to mark up to demonstrate the problem, and then check off  "problems with written mechanics" or "formatting errors" on the rubric. This makes the relevant point without overwhelming the student or consuming inordinate amounts of marker energy.

          Restrict negative comments to the two or three most serious weaknesses in the paper. Providing negative feedback on all aspects of the assignment at once demoralizes students, distracts students from correctly identifying their most urgent priorities, and consumes marker time unnecessarily. Students can address only two or three issues at a time when seeking to improve for the next assignment, so providing more detailed feedback is counter productive for both marker and student. As students fix their most egregious problems, their grades will improve correspondingly, and attention may now productively be turned to the next two or three most serious weaknesses, until eventually, only minor problems remain.

          Include as many positive comments as negative. Students often need to have their strengths identified for them so that they may repeat and build on these successful elements. Appropriate positive feedback will encourage students to seek out, read, and attend to all marker comments, thus ensuring one's efforts have not been in vain. (Faced with only negative comments, many students will simply note the grade and discard the returned paper, comments unread.) Besides being good pedagogy, this approach will also save time and energy otherwise required to deal with hostile students.

          One technique to reduce marker workload is to set two assignment deadlines: Assignments handed in by the first deadline are guaranteed written feedback. Assignments handed in by the second, later deadline are accepted and graded, but forfeit written feedback. Many students will avail themselves of the later deadline.

 

Utilizing Course Evaluations Efficiently


DO take student input

          Examine course evaluations carefully for ways to increase teaching effectiveness; e.g., if a number of students comment on "too many PowerPoint slides", cut down on the use of PowerPoint. Effective teaching is most efficient use of one's time because it eliminates need to address problems that otherwise arise.

          Focus on the majority/consensus comments; beginning instructors may become preoccupied with the one or two negative comments among an otherwise positive class response, and completely overhaul their course in a misguided attempt to eliminate these outriders. Unless respondents have identified specific, easily remedied problems, redesigning the course is as likely to upset the previously satisfied majority, as it is to eliminate all negative comment. An overhaul is only indicated when consensus is negative, or where particular population identifies that it has been disadvantaged (e.g., complaints of biased content, instructional strategies, etc.).

          Where there is wide disagreement among respondents (e.g., "lectures too much"/ "great lectures!"), recognize that students come with a variety of learning styles and that what works for one student may not work for another. Build on strengths identified by positive comments, and attempt to mitigate fallout from negative comments by broadening teaching strategies to accommodate learning style(s) not currently addressed (e.g., follow great lecture with small group discussion).

   

          Where negative student comments appear inaccurate or wrong-headed, recognize that students are not always able to accurately articulate their actual concern. Examine such comments closely to see if they can be translated into something useful. E.g., student complaints that instructor "tested on stuff never taught us" may translate as "didn't realize test included material from course readings"; concern is then addressed by explicitly noting in course outline and at the beginning of each class which readings are due and included on the next test.

          Where course evaluations identify as concerns features of the course design that the instructor feels strongly are of fundamental importance, these concerns may be pre-emptively addressed in subsequent course outlines. E.g., if complaint is that readings are "too old", use course outline to explain concept of "seminal work"; if complaint is there is "too much reading", state in the course outline why these 25 articles are bare minimum required to cover the field. Students will generally accept instructor's rationales when these are made transparent. See http://people.uleth.ca/~runte/outlines/sampman.htm for more detailed examples.

 

 

Keeping Professional Development Manageable


DO take advantage of teaching development resources

          Teaching efficiently means teaching effectively; effective teaching requires keeping up with the current research on teaching. No professor would consider submitting a research paper without including a literature review, or with references that were all 20 years old, but many appear content to ignore the vast research on effective post-secondary instruction and to continue to rely on methods inherited from the 1890s. Instructors need to bring the same intellectual rigor to their teaching as they do to the research portion of their jobs; failure to keep up with (and contribute to) the research literature on post-secondary instruction is an abdication of responsibility for 40% of one's workload.

          Keeping up with developments in research on teaching (and on the changing nature of student body, e.g., understanding needs of digital generation) can become needlessly time consuming unless managed efficiently. Managing efficiently means identifying professional development resources that compile the latest research on "best practice" without having to wade through the primary sources oneself.

          Attend the annual conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE). STLHE conference presentations consistently demonstrate a variety of effective teaching ideas that can be immediately incorporated into one's own classroom. (A secondary benefit is the motivational boost of associating with other Canadian university instructors committed to effective teaching.) STLHE Green Guides (e.g., on lecturing to large classes, on managing inquiry, etc.) are also excellent resources.

   

          Attend Teaching and Learning Center workshops; if currently offered workshops do not seem to meet one's immediate needs, ask for the needed workshop to be developed.

          Identify effective and efficient teachers in your area and ask to visit their classes; ask peers to visit your class and offer a (confidential) critique. Borrow effective teaching techniques from successful colleagues, but always adapt these to fit one's own course content, student demographics, and personal teaching style. Experiment with others' styles, but be prepared to reject those that do not prove effective (efficient) for particular content, student demographics, or personal strengths.

          Use student course evaluations and confidential peer feedback to identify areas of strength and weakness in one's teaching. Select one area to develop each semester and read one secondary text on that topic; ask to visit the classrooms of those who have mastered targeted area; experiment.



*© Robert Runté, 1999, 2007. Initially presented at Gender Issues Caucus & ULFA workshop on "Meeting the Challenges of Work and Family: Doing Justice to All Aspects of Your Life" October 5, 1999. Last revised and updated, May 2007. Comments to Runte@uleth.ca The opinions expressed are those of the author and may not reflect the views of ULFA / University of Lethbridge.

1The inclusion of additional elements in the lesson plan (such as a section on evaluation or hands-on activities) may be recommended for 'best practice' pedagogically; the focus here is strictly on minimum required to maximize efficiency.

2If concerned with keeping mc exams secure, try numbering pairs of examination booklets and answer sheets sequentially (i.e., same number on both question booklet and answer sheet) and sorting the sets immediately after collecting the exams: gaps representing missing papers will be immediately apparent and the culprit identified on the answer sheet corresponding to the missing booklet.

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