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Teaching Takes Time that You Could Use for Writing

It is easy to spend time on teaching and teaching prep. But how much time should be spent on these activities?  It’s easy to let teaching take up way too much of your time.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of Stephen Covey’s Time Matrix, which you can find in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The elegant chart he created has been filled in below with examples from academic life.

He makes a distinction between important work, which has no short-term deadline but really matters for you in the long run, and urgent work, which usually involves other people tapping their feet and waiting for you to produce something by a certain date.

Teaching is important work:

  • For grad students who have the opportunity, it is critical career prep
  • For many professors, it is the bottom line of evaluation for tenure or promotion
  • For students, this is their chance to learn more about the important field that you teach!

Teaching is usually urgent work, as there are always:

  • Classes to prepare or improve
  • Assignments to design and grade
  • Students to see

The trouble is, spending lots of time on teaching takes away from your writing time.

Writing is extremely important – you MUST finish your dissertation to get your degree, you MUST publish enough in order to get tenure, you MUST write enough additional articles and books to get promotions or a better job. But (here is the important point,) writing is not nearly as urgent as teaching.

Writing long projects typically falls in that “important but not urgent” corner, and in our daily activities it is often squeezed out by activities that are “important and urgent” and, sadly, ones that are “urgent but not important.”

How to save time on grading

What would you think if you knew that the leading book on grading, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College

  • Begins with: “The way to save time, make every moment count… is to plan your grading from the moment you begin planning the course….”
  • Asks “Why spend the time grading student work that doesn’t address your most important goals”
  • Reminds you to ask yourself “Is the workload I am planning … feasible, reasonable, strategically placed, and sustainable?”

What do Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson mean? They mean that you should focus on student learning goals for the course. They mean that you should say to yourself, “by the end of the course, I want my students to be able to…..” Focus on what students will learn to do, rather than on what you will do.

Do you want to waste your time and your students time?  Well, you ARE wasting their time if you give assignments that do not measure student progress toward these goals.

  • If your goal relates to mastery of concepts and you assign open essays, you will spend a great deal of time reading the essays but not necessarily clearly identify whether they know the concepts.
  • If your goal is critical thinking, and you assign tests that measure recall, you will spend a great deal of time creating the tests but not actually measure critical thinking skills.

These authors suggest that good teaching requires a feasible workload. It is not good teaching to set assignments that are not sustainable. And, as we know well in Academic Ladder, you cannot work on your oh-so-important long-term writing projects if your teaching is taking an unreasonable amount of time!

So the best teachers make grading as efficient and effective as they can.

How to save time on class prep

What would you think if you knew that the leading expert on faculty success ….

  • Found that the best teachers spend LESS time than their less-successful peers?
  • Advises you to “prepare for class before you feel ready?”

It’s true! How do those faculty members do it? Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus, whose studies on academic writing underlie Academic Ladder’s approach, also studied new professors.

His research found that successful new teachers use “…simple, effective strategies…. to work efficiently….” They prepare for classes in brief, regular sessions.  They spend only 2 hours preparing for each one hour in class, unlike their peers who spend 4 hours for each class hour. They report short, more frequent, planning sessions (e.g. break the 2 hours of prep into 2 one-hour sessions), so that ideas about the class float in their heads between sessions.

To learn from successful faculty, remember that good content knowledge is not the same as good teaching. You probably already know the content very well. Why waste your time learning even more? Your primary goal is student learning, and you should plan each class period around a limited set of learning goals for the students.

For each class, begin with the two or three main objectives of the class period, and then recall what assignments you’ve planned to measure learning in that area. Then think, “How can I help students to succeed on that assignment?” There is the core of your class plan. What combination of lecture, student interaction, and student feedback will help the students learn that material?

Sure, you do not feel ready. But when you let go of telling the students everything you know about the topic, you notice when they are confused or inactive. When you focus on today’s main learning goals, you will end class with a direction for the next class.

Start today to save time on teaching! You can use that precious time for your important, but not urgent, writing project!


Web resources

IDEA Center: theideacenter.org. The Knowledge Base includes very brief articles on many aspects of teaching. Especially relevant to this article are:

  • IDEA Paper No. 42, Fink, Integrated Course Design

  • POD-IDEA Notes: Instruction. Item #12: Walvoord, “Giving tests and projects that convey the most important points of the course”

Boice, Robert. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Needham Heights MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Covey, Stephen R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Revised ed.). New York: Free Press.

Walvoord, Barbara E., & Anderson, Virginia Johnson. (2010). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College (second ed.). San Francisco Jossey-Bass.

**Warning: Shameless Plug Alert:

Join the Academic Writing Club. It will give you the ongoing encouragement, gentle nudges, and a group of supportive colleagues to help you get clear that You are the experiment, and your behavior is the data. Joining the writing club will help you get real about your work and get on with it.

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