Thursday, February 5, 2015

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: 10 Ways for more Efficient Teaching

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


For the last year (and then some), I've been having a teaching load of 3 courses in the Fall semester, 3 courses in the Spring semester and no courses during the summer (when I go back to The Netherlands for research).

Preparing, teaching and managing 3 courses is a challenge if you still want to keep any time available for research, writing papers, catching up with the literature, service commitments and more. Preparing, teaching and managing 3 new courses, while keeping all of the above tasks up and running is brutal - and that was exactly the story of my first semester. By now, I have settled into a routine, and even though I'm still improving my courses in many different ways, I feel I got the hang of all the tasks related to teaching. Since my first semester was a swim-or-sink kinda experience, I had a very steep learning curve. Today I'd like to share some of the things that I learned.

1. Plan your lectures

Have an overview in the syllabus of what you'd like to teach in every course hour that you've been allotted. Try to avoid vague descriptions of "I will cover topics X, Y and Z", without really knowing how deep you want to dive into each topic. Having a schedule for the entire semester will help you prepare your classes - you'll know how to limit the amount of material you prepare based on the maximum amount of time you can spend on a given topic in class. On the other hand, your schedule can also work as a booster for your preparations - just like a good planning for a paper can give an impetus to the productivity of your writing.

2. Plan class preparation time

It might sound very obvious - but if you teach a lecture, you also need time to prepare for this lecture. The rule of thumb seems to be that you need about 2 to 4 hours to prepare each hour of lecture. For new topics, you probably need very close to 4 hours, just for class preparation alone, not taking into account the time it takes to develop homeworks, exams and to grade. Since your classes probably run on a fixed schedule on a weekly basis, it can be very helpful to schedule your class preparation time with a weekly template.

3. Plan time for grading

Preparing class might take quite some time, but whenever you get homeworks back, or exams, you will need at least some time for grading these. If you plan your week or month ahead, you can schedule time after the due date of a homework or after an exam to grade this material. I try to grade exams (and often homeworks too) within 24 hours after I receive the material - I consider it good practice to provide prompt feedback to the students.

4. Sort out the technical part before the semester

If you are going to play around with presentations on your laptop or tablet, it can be helpful to check the classroom in which you will be teaching in advance to see if everything is working fine. If you are going to use computer labs, make sure the computers have all the licences you need for teaching. If you are teaching a laboratory class, try to make sure you have all materials before the start of the semester.

This advice, however, is not something I have been able to live by. I've been changing classrooms a number of times - often needing to figure out how to hook up my tablet to the projector in every different classroom. Last semester, I started teaching a laboratory class, while the laboratory itself wasn't even in use and the equipment was being shipped from Italy. You can save yourself some stress by trying to get everything sorted out in due time.

5. Find your best teaching schedule


If your university allows you to give a suggestion for your class hours, it can be convenient to take your personal circadian rhythm into account. My most productive hours are in the early morning, a time of the day I set aside for working out and writing my papers. After lunch, I typically get a little sleepy, and teaching at that time (and being standing up and talking) is a perfect way to mitigate my post-food-coma. I would get way less work done if I'd spend that time behind my computer trying to solve some deep work problems.

6. Protect your data

As sad of a truth as it is, some students will go far in order to try to know the exam questions or even try to change their grade behind your back. Keep a watchful eye on your accounts and your data. (And yes, I hate pulling up this little curtain of suspicion, but I learned the hard way that not everybody is fully honest in those terms).

7. Ask for a TA

If you can get a teaching assistant to do your grading and supervise exams, go for it. It always takes some effort to delegate work to somebody else, but in the long run, having a TA can be a godsend. Once you know he/she is trustworthy, you can let go of your control, and just trust him/her with the work that otherwise might be taking up your precious research time (or, sometimes, unfortunately, the time you spend sitting in meetings).

8. Do you really need to grade every homework?


Ask yourself if you really need to grade every single homework. I've known professors who simply put a "1" if you submit a homework, and a "0" if you fail to submit. Other professors used to give us back the solutions of the homework, and tell us to grade it ourselves (I might have been even more strict on myself than the professor would have been). I'm currently trying out a combination between short homeworks that have as a goal that the students sit down with their coursebook and work through something, which are graded simply based on submission ("1" or "0"), and longer homeworks that I need to fully revise, to see how their understanding of the concepts is.

9. Highlight possible exam questions in the coursebook

One way to gather exam questions while preparing lectures, is to highlight possible exam questions in the coursebook while reading it. Once you are at the point of preparing an exam, you can simply go through these highlights and notes about possible questions, and pick a number of questions from the book in this way.

10. Print all your material at the beginning of the semester


I try to print and copy all material (homework assignments, syllabi, notes, homework solutions, additional material) at the very beginning of the semester, and then distribute this material as the semester progresses. Especially if your university complicates the process of actual printing and copying of materials, by, for example, sending you to a copy center, it can save you quite some time if you do everything at once at the start of the semester.

Pro-tip: Don't be a perfectionist!


I still see a lot of room for improvement in my courses. I started teaching without having nice PowerPoint presentations. Slowly but surely I'm now turning my class preparation notes into presentations for some courses. I sometimes wish I could write my own coursebook, or at least a bundle with examples that the students can use as material to prepare for their exams. The reality is that I only have a given number of hours in a day, and I will make these improvements and changes over the next few years. If you want everything perfectly prepared, you'll be spending way too much time to prepare a single lecture hour, and you'll be sick with exhaustion by the end of the semester.

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