As university instructors with schedules that change from semester to semester, we get the chance each time to experiment with different ways to manage our time both in and out of the classroom. Over the thirteen years I have been an instructor at TCU, I have experimented with a number of ways to make better use of my time in the classroom and to manage my workload outside of class. What follows are some strategies I have come to reply upon as I deal with the particularly large workload of an instructor teaching four courses and over one hundred students each semester.
There are any number of things that can interfere with how we use our time in the classroom; some we can control and others we can’t. For example, we cannot predict when we or a family member will get sick; we cannot always be certain that the technology in our classroom will work; and we cannot know how quickly our students will get through an in-class assignment. With experience we can learn how long it takes for us to lecture about a given topic or how much time we allow for the discussion of new material. But we can’t control how much our students will contribute to that discussion.
In spite of the sometimes unpredictable nature of the classroom, there are several strategies I continue to use in my classes to manage what I can control. Much of the organization for my classroom starts with the syllabus. In my syllabus, I provide specific details about the material that will be covered for each class meeting. Building upon that, I write a detailed lesson plan for each class that incorporates “housekeeping” details (homework due for the next class, upcoming assignment deadlines, changes in schedule), an outline for the general structure of the class that day, and detailed content notes that need to be covered. At the beginning of each class, I go over the “housekeeping” details first and verbally summarize what we will accomplish in class that day.
My detailed syllabus and lesson plan keep me on track and also enable me to look well ahead as I prepare for classes in the weeks to come; this allows me to spread out in-class writing assignments, quizzes, and group work over the semester. To compensate for days I am absent because of illness or when school is cancelled because of inclement weather, I also include “flex days” in my syllabus. These are days when no class meeting is planned but for which a missed class can be shifted to without disrupting our schedule. If the “flex day” is not used, it becomes an extra study day.
Elements of Time Management
Managing our time outside of the classroom also seems to fall into the categories of the things we can and cannot control. As we work to balance our classes, our research, professional development, and our service commitments, many of us are also juggling family life. We can control the times and days we schedule our classes, the number of committees we serve on, and the amount of work we assign our students. We cannot always control a sudden publication deadline, when our child has a long illness, or when five students need to schedule makeup exams.
Like so many professional women, I have also struggled over the years to balance family and work, but I’ve identified several factors I can control. To start, being flexible in the scheduling of my courses, experimenting with different days and times, and doing multiple sections of the same course in a given semester has helped reduce time preparing for class. Each semester I try to balance courses I have taught before with new courses. I also mix new material into older courses to keep them vibrant and interesting for me and my students. For example, I might replace two or three of the six texts I teach in a literature survey or change the theme or focus of a writing course while keeping the same writing assignments.
Perhaps our greatest burden outside of class is grading; when one stack of essays or exams is graded, another quickly takes its place. By limiting the amount of work and the type of work my students do for their assignments, I reduce the overall amount of grading I need to do while still giving students enough opportunities to fulfill learning outcomes. One of my most successful strategies that reduces my grading workload while also offering a variety of ways for a students to show their learning is to test using different formats. In one semester, my literature students
will take three different tests: objective (multiple choice, short answer, etc.), “excerpt” (objective questions with brief interpretive essays on literary passages), and essay. For quizzes, I use a “bye” system. Out of a total of 8 quizzes in a semester, my students can either take all of their quizzes and drop the two lowest grades, or they can take a “bye” for 2 quizzes, skipping them. Not surprisingly, most students will take the “bye” option, reducing the number of quizzes I need to grade.
For many of us, time management is an ongoing issue and each semester will present new challenges. By concentrating on factors we can control, we can allow ourselves the flexibility to develop balance and meaning inside and outside the classroom.