Teaching Today

How to Avoid Overprepping for Your Classes

Too many faculty members prepare too much for the classes they teach, writes Christine Tulley, who proposes a solution: pattern teaching.

January 15, 2019
 
 
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I recently consulted with a Ph.D. student who was logging long nights and weekends in her office. I knew she was trying to revise her dissertation into a book and complete a book proposal, but I soon learned that she was also using the late nights to get ready for class and “keep up” with course planning. With classes and committee work scheduled during the day, she never had time to write.

I often see this pattern of overpreparing among the early-career faculty members whom I mentor. Many have unwittingly fallen into what Armando Bengochea terms “the teaching trap.” Bengochea notes that such overprepping is a real problem for faculty members who suffer from impostor syndrome or use course preparation as a procrastination strategy because it sounds legitimate. They often engage in extensive lecture preparation, working to fill all available class time as a protection mechanism. The result is they have to do a time-consuming deep dive into content each week to develop lengthy lecture slides or handouts. Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of faculty of color, non-native speakers, women and other marginalized populations prepare too much for the classes they teach.

In my colleague’s case, she used most, if not all, of her free hours preparing for the next class. When I asked her why she didn’t limit course prep time to make room for writing for publication, she asked, “Then how will I know when I am done?”

Pattern teaching is a solution I regularly offer to faculty members who seek parameters on preparing for courses efficiently and effectively. The premise is simple and not revolutionary: develop a regular pattern or structure to the class. Often instructors create such a pattern (the first 15 minutes are used to review homework, group work is always done on Wednesdays and so on) for their students’ benefit. But pattern teaching can also influence how content is delivered, making it a useful strategy for streamline course preparation.

I advised my colleague to consider developing interchangeable segments for delivering content in each 50-minute class session. Some options might include:

  • Image/headline on the screen as students walk in to start discussion or theme for day (five minutes)
  • Review of what was learned in previous class (five minutes)
  • Questions that set up the day’s material (five minutes)
  • Mini-lecture (10-minute PowerPoint hitting the key points for the day)
  • Partner or group work activity (10 to 20 minutes)
  • Brief YouTube video illustrating a concept (five to eight minutes)
  • Freewriting session in journals about a question of the day (five to eight minutes)
  • Class business -- introduction to a new assignment, review for a test, answering questions (10 to 15 minutes)
  • Homework review (five to 10 minutes)
  • Student presentation or guest speaker (five to 20 minutes)

The idea then is to use such segments like Legos and “build” a class. For example, Mondays might always start with freewriting for five minutes, then a mini-lecture for 10 minutes, followed by a partner activity for 20 minutes. Next up is a video illustrating a concept for the week (eight minutes), followed by introduction to the assignment for the week (eight minutes).

Looking at this example of a 50-minute class, the instructor has to develop a freewriting question (which could be one of the overarching questions for the course or be pulled from a textbook), make a few slides for a short mini-lecture, develop a partner activity (which could be prebuilt, like think-pair-share) and find a video (with the caveat that any video must be found within 20 minutes to avoid a YouTube rabbit hole). Once those tasks are done, the instructor can move on to something else. Course prep is complete and can be repeated weekly if each class has a pattern.

The beauty of this approach is that the segments are interchangeable and avoid becoming a routine class structure for students. If Mondays always have the five components noted above, another Monday might start with a video, introduce an assignment, offer a mini-lecture with a group activity to follow and close with freewriting and a headline or image to discuss.

Because pattern teaching follows a plan, you can often prepare for a week’s worth of classes in one afternoon. After describing this approach to my colleague, she made a rough blank outline for each of her three class days with the types of segments listed, and she now uses the outline to prep for the upcoming week on Friday afternoons. As a result, she can now start each Monday knowing she’s already prepared for her classes and has time to write.

Pattern teaching actively helps combat teaching traps such as using class preparation as an excuse for not writing. Students also appreciate regularity and knowing what to expect in each course. If some of the elements of each class are the same but variety is also in place, students will probably score instructors highly on areas of teaching evaluations that ask about effective use of class time. (And concern over student evaluations is often given as a reason why faculty members overprepare for teaching in the first place.) Beyond providing a more efficient method for planning every class, teaching according to a pattern provides reassurance to self-perceived impostors because classes flow far more easily when a definite plan is in place.

Bio

Christine Tulley is a professor of English, director of the master of arts in rhetoric and writing, and academic career development coordinator at the Center of Teaching Excellence at the University of Findlay. She is the author of How Writing Faculty Write (Utah State University Press, 2018).

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