How to teach effectively without spending all of your time preparing: Five tips

For all professors, teaching is an important part of our job. However, for most professors, it is not the only important part of what we do. Most of us have other obligations and we risk putting those in jeopardy when we spend all of our time preparing for class and grading.

The good news is that it is possible both to be an excellent teacher and to avoid spending all of your time preparing for class, teaching, and grading.

I have been teaching at the university level for over a decade, and have learned that there is not a direct relationship between the numbers of hours you spend preparing for class and the quality of the class. Instead, after you reach a certain threshold, you receive greatly diminishing returns on your time investment into teaching. In fact, if you spend too much time preparing for class, it may end up not going so well because you have way too much information to share with students, and they (and you) end up feeling overwhelmed.

In his study of successful faculty, Robert Boice found that successful new professors integrated their research into their teaching; spent 1 to 1.5 hours of course preparation per lecture hour, and lectured at a pace that allowed for student preparation.

Based on Boice’s findings and my own experience, I offer you five tips that will help you teach great classes, without spending all of your time preparing.

Tip #1: Teach classes as closely related to your research as possible.

If your research is on gender, try to teach as many classes related to gender as possible. When choosing the books, choose those texts you are grappling with in your own work.

It can be important to teach the classics, but students also should be familiar with cutting-edge work in your field, and they will benefit immensely from hearing you talk about how you are engaging new ideas in your own work. In some cases, you may even be able to pilot your own books or articles in class.

Tip #2: Keep lectures to a minimum.

When I teach classes with 60 students or less, I usually lecture for about a quarter of the class time. I use this time to make it clear to students what topics they need to be paying attention to and what I hope to accomplish during the class period. Then, I move into discussion and group activities.

To promote discussion, I make sure that the very first class is discussion-based. My class preparation thus involves preparing a short lecture, and then preparing a list of questions to ask students. This takes me a lot less time than preparing an hour of lecture.

I go through the questions, asking them one by one. Sometimes it becomes clear that I need to clarify certain points, so I may move back into a brief lecture. Other times students may take class in a direction I had not anticipated, so I try and bring them around. Either way, a discussion-based class is more engaging and requires less preparation than preparing and practicing an hour-long lecture.

If you have a larger class, you may need to lecture more. However, keep in mind that most students will not be able to pay attention for 50 minutes straight, much less 75 minutes. It can be more effective to lecture in 15-minute segments and to take breaks to do activities such as asking students to write down short answers and discuss them with the person sitting next to them.

When you do lecture, avoid over-preparing. You are the expert and you do not have to write out every word of your lecture in advance and you do not need to practice your lecture, word-for-word. The ability to deliver an engaging lecture from your notes is a great skill to develop as an academic, and the classroom is a great place to experiment with techniques.

Tip #3: Find the schedule that works best for you and ask for it.

Some departments and universities are more flexible about scheduling than others. Knowing what teaching times are best for you is the first step towards getting an ideal teaching time. When works best for you?

In my first job, I was given a teaching schedule of 8am to 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I taught at those times for the first year, and then asked to change. Over time, I have realized that the ideal teaching time for me is in the afternoon and that I prefer to teach my classes in three-hour blocks. Thus, I ask for this schedule, and, thus far, have been able to make a case for it.

Tip #4: Set aside specific times for class preparation and stick to them.

In his study of successful faculty, Robert Boice found that, after their first time teaching a course, successful new professors spent no more than 1 to 1.5 hours of course preparation per lecture hour.

There are often an infinite number of materials you could include in your class. However, it is not productive to try and give students too much information. Sometimes over-preparing can make your teaching stiff and less interesting. Thus, I suggest that you make an effort to carve out one to and a half hours out of your schedule for each hour of class that you teach.

Plan ahead of time when you will prepare class and stick to those times.

Tip #5: Use rubrics for grading.

Grading is another area that can be very field-specific. However, most fields allow for the use of rubrics to grade papers. I assign two five-page papers in each of my 45-student undergraduate classes, and use rubrics to grade them. The rubrics are straightforward and allow me to communicate effectively with students what points they are getting and what points they are missing. That way, I do not have to write extensive comments on their papers.

In fact, unless you are a language teacher, you should not line-edit your students’ work. And, even if you are a language teacher, this guide explains that you should only line-edit the first 20 percent and then let students do the rest of the editing themselves.

There you have it – my five tips for being a more efficient teacher.

Tanya Golash-Boza authors the Get a Life, Ph.D. blog.

About Tanya Boza

Tanya Golash-Boza, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of Race and Racisms: A Critical Approach (Oxford 2014) as well as several other academic books and articles.