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how does this teaching thing work long term?


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I've just started my program and I've been teaching since day 1. I mean, I'm the only "professor" in front of the class, I grade all the papers, and I write the exams. It is a major time commitment that leaves little time for my own coursework. So, I'm just wondering how this all works long term. In a couple of years I need to produce a 50 page thesis and a few years after that a book-length dissertation. So I ask, where do I find the time for those things? Maybe some of you more experienced people can enlighten me. Teaching is a great life-experience and I have a lot of fun, but I feel it could take all my time if I let it.

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The teaching gets easier and less time consuming the more you do it. You learn to streamline things, whether that's grading more quickly or giving yourself less to grade. If you teach the same course repeatedly, the prep time required for each day of class gets shorter, especially if you make lesson plans or notes the first time and then update them after each additional time you teach that. If you haven't been writing out what you're doing in class, you should. I save things by date and also with a descriptor in the file name so I can easily find the right notes when I need them four months later for another class. For lesson plans, do NOT reinvent the wheel. There are tons of great activities and ideas out there on the internet and Google is your friend. Quite a few of the activities I do in class are based on activities I find online, whether modified or not.

But, honestly, a lot of what makes getting anything else done is managing the grading. Maybe you let students correct one another's quizzes, rather than doing it yourself. Maybe you mark errors but let them redo parts of a paper/exam for additional points. Maybe you make a "cheat sheet" of common errors which you can quickly reference on assignments (I have one for papers which points out things like run-on sentences, missing citations, lack of supporting evidence, and other common undergrad writing mistakes). 

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I think that time management is a really important part of academia and it's something we all really start learning in grad school. I think both teaching and research are things that can be described as "you can always do better". You can always spend more time on teaching---you can do more grading, you can tweak that lesson plan more, you can rehearse that part one more time, you can design that homework question better, you can provide one more piece of feedback. And, you can always spend more time on research---you can try a slightly different experiment, you can collect one more data point, you can read another review paper, you can reword that paragraph better, you can change the colours on the figure etc. There is always more to do!

So, instead of just pouring time and energy into teaching/research until it's "perfect" (it will never be), I go the other way around. I first assign how much resources I want to spend on this task and then budget my time to create the best effect. I do this for both research and teaching (after all, for research things, there is limited telescope time, and limited money to present at conferences etc.; the same principles apply). With teaching, it's a little bit easier because from Canada, I am used to TA work as contracted hourly work instead of salaried work. So, I decide how much time is supposed to go into teaching (based on any contracts that might exist and talking about expectations with the department or whomever is in charge of my teaching work). Then, I divide up my work and design the course to make the most of the time I have allocated towards this task.

In addition to what rising_star suggested, here are some other ways that you can reduce time spent on grading (which often is a big time sink and also the least fun):

1. Reduce the amount of material that will be graded. I can think of three ways to do this.
a. If your students will do homework even if it's not graded, then I would assign only a few questions that will be graded and the rest as ungraded homework that you'll just provide solutions for, but not grade. This works better for more senior students.
b. If you know that your students will only do homework if it's graded, then assign all of the questions for homework, but you tell them ahead of time that for each homework, you will only grade X questions, randomly. So, you might assign 5 questions per week but only grade 2 of them. 
c. You can also do a hybrid: assign a larger number of questions over a longer time period and then announce which ones you will be grading the class before it's due. So, you might assign 10 questions due 2 weeks from now, and tell the students that all questions should be completed but you'll ask for which 4 to collect for grading 2 days before it's due (so, in theory, the questions should all be finished and the student can just polish up the graded ones). This eliminates the "luck" factor from option b where you might choose to skip one question and have it be worth 50% of the homework grade!

2. Streamline the material you are grading. This works better in some fields than others. But you can design your homework/quizzes/etc so that you can grade them as efficiently as possible. In the lab sciences, for entry level labs with 1000+ students, one way to do this is to have fill-in-the-blank lab reports, so that the answers are in the same location on the page for every student, making it easier to grade. For physical sciences, our homework are often calculations, so you might require students to draw a box around all of their answers, so you can focus on that area. I'm not sure how to do this for papers though.

3. Prioritize your feedback. Spend more time on feedback that the student can use to improve their work. For example, I would spend more time providing feedback on quizzes, homework assignments, midterm exams etc. However, I would spend little time on feedback grading final exams, which the students do not get returned (and also, it's too late for them to do anything about it). When grading finals, I rarely leave comments, unless it's a strange thing that I need to make a note in case I need to justify the grade later. 

That's just tips for grading efficiency! 

You also can be strict with both yourself and your students on how much time you spend on teaching related work outside of the classroom. If you are finding yourself taking too much time away from other work because you have open office hours, maybe be more strict. Perhaps you can set aside a single day to do all of your teaching related work (prep, grading, office hours etc. and only take appointments from student on that day). Maybe you can set aside certain time periods where you will read emails from students (if you find these emails distracting you from other work). Of course, if you choose these strategies, make sure you communicate your intentions to your students well so that they know what is going on! (e.g. you might say "I will only read emails from this class on Mondays and Thursdays" or "I am not available after class for discussion, my office hours are X" and then close your office door when you get back after class). Be firm! This part is really hard for me because I really enjoy interacting with my students, but ultimately, if I let students have any part of my day that they want, I am letting down myself and other responsibilities I have as well. Luckily, I can only think of one course where I had to implement some of these measures because the amount of time I was spending on the course was getting out of control and impacting my ability to do other work.

For things like lesson plans, rising_star already said most of what I would say. Keep all of your notes and re-use them. Don't redesign your course each year. If you have any choice in what you are assigned to teach, try to pick the same courses at least 2 or 3 years in a row. Sure, getting variety of experience is important, but so is having enough time to do other things you need to do (e.g. research). 

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Streamlining grading for papers is actually not that hard, provided you focus on quality and not quantity. That is, 3 really good assignments are better than 5 or 6 mediocre ones. In addition, think really carefully about the length of each assignment. First and second year students are going to struggle to write decent papers of more than 4-5 double-spaced pages so, if you're asking for that, you're putting yourself in a situation where you'll need to give a lot of feedback because they're struggling to do what you've asked. In my writing intensive second year course, there's only two assignments (the midterm and the final) that are more than 4 pages double-spaced. Everything else they write is under 750 words (I use word maximums, rather than page numbers) and several are capped at 300 or 500 words depending on the task. (300 words is if they're summarizing something; 500 if they have to do summary and analysis.) I've found that limiting how much they can write in this way forces them to be more concise which gives me less to grade. I've even had students thank me for forcing them to cut all the fluff out of their paper (aka, they hit the word maximum but realized they hadn't said what they wanted to say so they had to go back and edit heavily). 

For grading, use rubrics and a timer. The rubric makes it easier for you to know what to deduct for and also gives some consistency to the grading. I use rubrics for all of the papers I assign. If you go the rubric route, provide students with the rubric in advance (definitely before the assignment is due) so that they know how they are being evaluated. Some instructors even have students score themselves based on the rubric and turn in that self-assessment with their paper. I'm planning to try that out next semester so, ask me in May how that went. 

The timer is seriously the key to grading efficiently. Read through one or two papers without commenting and see how long it takes you. For a 500 word paper, the answer for me is like 3 minutes. So then, I'll give myself 6-8 minutes to read, provide feedback on, and grade each paper. I'll keep an eye on the timer so that I know when I'm about to run out of time. When time is running out, it's almost always because I'm filling a paper with comments. Too many comments will actually overwhelm a student so it may not be helpful in the long run. The timer keeps me from doing that. If I finish before the timer goes off, then I give myself a break to surf the web, change the music, pet the dog, etc. Then I get right back into it. I typically grade 5 papers in a block then take a mini break before getting back into it (think pomodoro technique). It really helps, I promise.

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@rising_star: That's great advice for paper-based classes. I have not yet taught or TA such a class but I will keep this in mind for the future, in case I do! And definitely second everything you said with timer and rubrics. In my past TA experience, I usually only have 3-4 minutes to grade about ~6-8 pages of math, so this is key!

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  • 4 weeks later...

@rising_star makes some great points. I used a rubric and liked to see an "a" paper first, then I kind of had a mental yardstick. Depending on what you are testing, for the quizzes I made them all multiple choice (and one super bonus fill in), that way I could really zip through them. I would try to meet folks that might be able to offer you funding too. I was lucky enough to pick up funding after a semester so your time TAing might not work out to be as long as you are thinking it will. good luck!

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  • 3 weeks later...

All of these tips are great in terms of teaching. But just as important as managing your teaching load is being vigilant about scheduling time for research and writing and honoring that schedule. In other words, the time you've set aside for writing and research should not be considered any more flexible than your scheduled teaching hours. 

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  • 1 month later...

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