Justin Meyer
Justin Meyer
Senior Lecturer of Chemistry, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

Do you find yourself short of time? I certainly do. As educators, we all wish we had more minutes, hours, and days to do things related to our classes.

 

Time and workload are not minor concepts for those who teach. A small shift in how you use your hours can make it look like you have too much work, or you have too much “free time.”  The following are strategies I use to work smarter, not harder, so I can spend less effort on the low-impact stuff to focus on the priorities that matter.

 

Academic Time Zones

There are academic time zones in which we end up devoting most of our hours: course preparation, in-class time, assessment, and finally, ‘other’ things. Three of these four zones I’ll touch briefly upon; the fourth, however, I will unpack in greater detail.

 

SuperStock_1773R-13419522.jpg1. The Preparation Time Zone

Preparation is a large time zone. Classroom success directly relates to the time you devote to preparation. Nevertheless, a major aspect of preparation should be the time spent after class reflecting on how things went. You should consider both the good and the bad. The idea here is to make the next class period better than the last. It may sound counter-intuitive to spend time thinking instead of doing, but the more you reflect, less time is needed for course preparation later. Do not cut out this crucial thought-work when you feel time crunched.

 

2. The In-Class Time Zone

A 50-minute class is a 50-minute class. Sure, there are ways to make this time more productive, and I’ll mention one when we look at the next time zone. Classroom efficiencies are a topic for another occasion, but for the sake of this article, unless you have a secret formula that extends time, you get what you get.

 

3. Grading/Evaluation Zone

This time zone will vary depending on the discipline you teach and how you assess assignments and tests. Circling back to the Preparation Time Zone, reflective course prep can shave off grading and evaluation. For example, I maintain a comprehensive question bank that I continually update to keep from needing to create new problems from scratch each semester. I also correct errors in existing questions.  Other efficiencies are available in how you provide feedback to students about their exam results. I don’t spend an entire class period reviewing an exam; I instead record a video that walks students through the answer key so they can review it on their own time.

 

4. Other Things

The last time zone covers almost anything not included in the other three.

  • Course evaluations or surveys: We all deal with these, and we need to spend some time reading them if we’re aiming at continuous improvement outlined in the Course Preparation Time Zone. See Diane Rubino’s post on how to handle the nasty-grams we receive from our students.
  • Student assistance and reporting: These activities include in-person grade discussions, identifying struggling students and reaching out to them, and compiling reports on student progress reports for administrators and coaches. If you notice fewer and fewer students visiting you during office hours, it’s nice to think they’re all getting the material. But more than likely, they do not want to talk about their academic issues. Be welcoming; invite at-risk students to meet up during your office time. Create a list of discussion points to stay on track and set a time limit. If a student needs additional help, you might want to suggest tutors or peers who can help. If you notice most the class struggling with a concept, tackle it in class. You’ll lose some class time, but not reviewing concepts the class does not understand will just exacerbate issues down the road. (And take up more of your time when they do.)
  • Special Circumstances: Every institution has policies about students missing class for justifiable reasons. In most cases, these situations require additional time or resources on the educator’s part. Set specific office hour sessions for tackling student absenteeism. Maybe you have office hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Make one of these sessions your special case day. Another tactic is to split your office time in half. One-half is for student general questions and the other for unique circumstances.
  • The Downside of Technology: Do you get emails, or text messages, at all hours of the day? Composing an answer in an email takes more time than responding in person. Educators are losing the personal touch, and we should try to bring it back as much as we can. When students stop by during my office hours, my priority is to focus on their questions, but then it’s my turn to ask questions. I want to gauge how things are going, especially in large class sections. Email is not the right medium for gaining ad hoc student feedback; ask these questions one on one.
  • Bueller? Bueller? Absentee Students

I always joke that teaching would be simple if nobody missed class. However, that’ll never happen, which means professors need to create make-up material. Producing duplicate exams and arranging make-ups is a time suck. Nevertheless, here is what I do:

 

    1. Create firm and fair policies: I create firm but fair policies about missed classes, assignments, and exams. I state my policies in the course syllabus. I make it a point for students to review the policies. Students tend to believe all faculty have the same policies and will assume you follow what they are familiar with unless you state and document otherwise.
    2. Create manageable policies: Whatever policy you set, it has to be something you can manage. I do not allow make-up quizzes. Instead, students can drop three of their lowest scores. If they miss an assessment, it ends up being one of the scores they can drop.
    3. Schedule a common make-up time: Some professors schedule a common make-up time. A smaller room is reserved for a group of students to take a make-up assessment. On-campus testing centers can be an option as well.
    4. Have a plan: Anticipate that there will be make-up situations. Proactivity is key. Here’s an example: I provide answer keys to exams shortly after they’re completed. This, however, necessitates my need to come up with new questions for the make-up exam. I create the other questions as I write the original exam—time saved!
    5. Grade Replacement: In the end, I try to avoid any make-up options because it’s unfair that some students are allowed extra time to study (even if they have a legitimate excuse). In exchange, I offer students the chance to replace a missing grade. I do this by dividing the final exam into sections, each part relating to material found in a previous assessment. The score they get on the part of the final related to the missed exam goes in the grade book for the exam they missed. Their performance on the final then demonstrates they know the information (or don’t).

 

Summing It All Up

Reflect on what you do well and where you can improve to make the next go-around more efficient. Look to gain time on items you can control so you can focus on top priorities. Set policies that make sense and that you manage and be proactive where you can.

 

I would welcome hearing about how you manage your time. Share what’s worked for you in the comments below.

 

Image Credit: Cultura Limited / Superstock