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Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her discussing teaching and learning on Twitter as @aguarnera and learn more about her work on her website.


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Here at GradHacker, we love sharing tips and tricks to improve your productivity as a graduate student. We’ve written about productivity apps, productivity rules, and most recently, systematizing your workflow.


Today, I’d like to share my own secret weapon for mid-semester productivity (and mental sanity): bulk lesson planning. During my time as a TA, I would take two weeks before the start of each semester to hole up in a coffee shop somewhere with my almond milk latte, textbooks, and laptop, in order to plan out an entire semester’s worth of lessons. As someone who loves planning, I found this enjoyable (really!), but most of all, I loved the freedom and confidence that it gave me during the semester. Planning my lessons before the chaos of the semester started allowed me to put a lot of thought into my teaching, and later on, knowing that they were planned in advance helped me to avoid stress when something else (like studying for comps) inevitably took longer than expected.


But don’t let my personal testimony be the only thing that convinces you to try bulk lesson planning. Here are three other reasons you may find convincing:


1. The most compelling reason: it makes backwards planning easier. All the best pedagogical research tells us that we should be backwards planning our classes to ensure student success. In case you’re not familiar with the term, “backwards planning”—or “backwards design,” as it is also called—is a framework for designing courses that begins with the course learning objectives (i.e. the question “What skills and knowledge do I want students to take away from this class?”) and then plans “backwards,” first writing assessments that will measure student mastery of those skills and knowledge and THEN, and only then, planning the activities that will get students to the level of mastery needed for success with those assessments. Once you’ve done that effectively at the macro level with your syllabus, you can use the momentum you’ve developed to backwards plan each individual lesson. If you are an instructor of record and solely responsible for your course content, consider planning your course in this order: write the syllabus first, then the assessments, then the individual lessons. If you are a discussion leader or a TA with a more hands-off role, it may be more difficult to backwards plan, but it is not necessarily impossible. Even if the semester’s assessments are not yet written, you can ask your faculty member what learning objectives will be measured on your course’s exams or other assignments—and then use that information to plan your lessons accordingly.


When you’re planning large swaths of the semester at once, connecting key concepts and themes is easier than if you wrote each lesson plan individually, since it’s not as difficult to remember your sequencing of skills and ideas. And should you find that your students need a little extra time on one concept or another, it is possible to shift direction accordingly, even if you already have the entire semester mapped out. In my experience, tweaking one or two lesson plans usually accommodates these necessary changes, and getting back on course is easier, since the future lessons are already prepared.


2. It saves time and stress. Let’s consider two lesson planning scenarios:


Scenario 1: It’s 11:45 at night, and you’re up late (again) writing discussion questions for the next day's 8:00 AM Philosophy 101 discussion section. It’s been a long day and, let’s be honest—this probably isn’t your best work. The next morning, when your alarm goes off at 6:30, it’s time to shower, eat breakfast, gulp some coffee, and make a mad dash to the copier (hope no other TAs are there!) before you book it across campus to meet your class on time. Upon arriving, you discover that the copies have an error, and it throws off your lesson plan for the whole day. You muddle through and the students seem productive in the session, but you’re left feeling frazzled and annoyed, knowing it could have been more organized.


Scenario 2: Your lesson plans have been ready for weeks, so the night before your Philosophy 101 discussion, you read over the plan for the following day and remind yourself of the key points that you want to make sure your students capture. You head to bed early, wanting to be fresh at the start of your long day tomorrow. Your copies were made last week, so the following morning, when your alarm goes off at 6:30, all you have to do is get yourself ready, bring your plan and pre-printed activities to class, and get right to teaching.


Which is a more appealing scenario to you? If you find yourself consistently scrambling to prepare the night before your classes, bulk lesson planning might prove an effective time management and stress relief strategy for you.


3. It makes collaborative lesson planning easier. If you’re considering using collaborative lesson planning to streamline your planning system this semester, planning large chunks of lessons at once—whether weekly, monthly, or a whole semester at a time—can make it a feasible task for you and your planning group. There are many ways to plan as a group, so discuss what sort of schedule would fit your personalities and individual responsibilities.


Have you ever bulk lesson planned before? What were the advantages that it gave you in your teaching?

[Image provided by Flickr user Dafne Cholet and used under a Creative Commons license]

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